EdSurge: Making the American Dream a Reality for Underserved Students

graduates throwing caps in celebration

For the past 30 years, people have thought of the American Dream in two ways: owning a home and going to college. The subprime lending crisis of 2008, however, was a clear example of people being sold the American Dream without being given the tools to realize it. The same phenomenon is true in higher education. Incentive structures have been created that encourage people to pursue a degree, but many drop out when they are unable to navigate the complexities of the college experience.

Last year, I struck up a conversation with a Lyft driver named Tyler. We got around to talking about education, and she told me that she had to drop out of college because her sister’s children were in a dangerous situation; they needed a new caretaker. Tyler said she wanted to go back to college, but she just didn’t know how. It seemed like too big of a challenge to figure it all out: What would she do with these children? How would she afford it?

Tyler’s story is a classic example of how higher education has become a blind spot in our society. Over the last three decades, the number of people going to college has increased exponentially, but finishing college is far less common. In fact, 31 million people are in a similar situation to Tyler: they completed some college, dropped out and are now saddled with debt but no value for that debt. Collectively, college dropouts owe a staggering $1.35 trillion in loans. Not only does this result in financially-trying times for individual students, but it’s bad for the economy for several reasons. This population is more likely to default on loans. In just one year (2010), the cost of college dropouts was $4.5 billion in lost earnings and tax revenue.

These numbers show that we have placed the emphasis on access at the detriment of attainment. Surely, this is not the true vision of the American Dream.

Why Does This Population Struggle?

My conversation with Tyler was filled with such a robust set of concrete ideas and thoughts about the kind of career she wants to pursue and the longer term vision she wants to follow. She is simply missing support. What if Tyler––and the millions of young men and women in a similar situation––had the help they needed to succeed? What if she had a much larger network of advocates who truly wanted to help her graduate college? What if she had a peer network and a coach to help her understand the value of finishing college?

Students like Tyler struggle because of the external factors that make her think she’s not the right person to pursue the American Dream. Research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that there are eight common perspectives of how students see themselves. When they feel unsupported, question their ability or return on investment value, or think that they don’t belong, they are much more likely to be unsuccessful. Conversely, when they are well supported from home and feel a sense of belonging, they significantly enable their own success.

What Are the Solutions?

Because millions of students like Tyler have so much potential, it is imperative that universities engage them and figure out how to help them get back into college. How should they do this? They could try the do-it-yourself model, using student coaches with similar experiences. They could outsource retention coaching in a fee-for-service model. Lastly, they could pursue a partnership model, where they share risk and share reward. This last model is similar to the online program management (OPM) model where companies invest in building online programs with universities and only share in the revenue if they are successful in enrolling and engaging students through graduation.

In the last 5 years, we have seen universities prioritize and invest in supporting at-risk students. For example, Georgia State has inspired the country with a 22 percent increase in graduation by low-cost ways to give students more one-on-one attention. Companies like Civitas and Starfish provide data to universities so that they can zero in on who’s at risk so that faculty on the ground can support students in a targeted way. Now that we have more of these supports in place for at-risk students, it’s time to engage the students who have dropped out altogether.

I’m excited about the partnership model because it allows universities to put a stake in the ground around engaging the target population without having to do the heavy lifting. A partner company—disclosure, my company is one of several—engages the dropouts, and if the students re-enroll, the partner takes a percentage of the revenue. The partner provides the support for students to re-enroll with coaches, technology, resources, and, most significantly, the personalized connection that makes students feel like they truly belong back in college.

Upon re-enrollment, students receive guidance navigating the complexities of college life––balancing priorities, figuring out finances, establishing and maintaining study habits. Students become their own advocates.

Students like Tyler have a right to a better set of opportunities. She has the winning combination––drive and potential. It seems crazy that we would leave her––and millions of students like her––behind. She should be able to achieve the true American Dream. A dream that includes greater professional opportunities, real value for her debt and a future with myriad choices.

Nitzan Pelman (@NitzanPelman) is co-founder of ReUp Education.