In May, my oldest daughter will graduate from college debt free. Our last payment will will be in two weeks when I will be lifting a glass in celebration. She will have the gift of a BA from a good college, unburdened by loan payments so that she might pursue the career of her choice. More than 70% of American college students graduate with some debt and the average debt is now $30,000 (the down payment for a house in most parts of the U.S.). Not only do these liabilities make it a challenge to enter the middle class, but it means that graduates are pressured to take jobs to pay the loans rather than those to find their passions.
I come from a family that for the last three generations, has focused on access to college and has been fortunate to have the resources to make that happen. After her birth, our daughter had a college savings account within her first year. Like most families that immigrated to America, it didn’t start that way. My Great Grandfather traveled to Ohio from Northern Ireland to escape poverty like many of today’s immigrants from Central America. He had the good fortune to be a manservant for a physician, Dr. Dudley (my grandfather and my namesake). Luckily for my family, Dr. Dudley believed deeply in the power of education. He encouraged my great grandparents to get their kids on track for college and provided financial support for my grandfather to go to Cornell University.
My family jumped from struggling working-class Irish, to being the subject of John Cheever’s writings with other struggles. Cleveland poverty to Westchester privilege in one generation. Education has always been a great leveler, and it is even more true today with income gaps by education level growing faster than ever.
According to the US Department of Labor, the average college graduate will make about $51,000 per year compared to $28,000 for a high school graduate, and $21,000 for a high school dropout. On top of that, unemployment rates are almost four times higher for dropouts than college graduates and employment rate gaps between college graduates and dropouts have grown in recent years (or decades) as jobs become globally competitive and require more skills. Not to mention current job projections which suggest that over 70% of new jobs in the next five years will require a post-secondary certificate or degree. This means that the majority of students in underperforming urban systems are being prepared for a life of poverty.
I was thinking of the impact of Dr. Dudley on my family when on a recent visit to Oakland, CA to catch up on the latest efforts to improve this city’s public education system. Oakland, like Denver Metro districts, continues to struggle to prepare most students to earn a living wage. Only 1 in 10 low-income students of color receive a college degree in Oakland, Denver, and Aurora.
To take on this challenge, the City of Oakland has just launched a bold new initiative, Oakland’s Promise, which provides a $500 college savings account for every child born in Oakland. It’s an effort that has learned from the other 30 plus promise initiatives including Kalamazoo Promise which provides scaled tuition assistance based on the number of years a student attends school in the district.
Oakland Promise is a multifaceted initiative. It includes the college savings account that could grow from this $500 seed to cover a significant portion of cost of college. In addition, it includes scholarships and future centers. Oakland’s future centers, like those in Denver high schools, provide guidance around college matches for students and partnerships with local colleges that allow for intensive support for first generation college students. Oakland Promise offers families robust support along the entire continuum from birth to college graduation. The program has been thoughtfully designed by the City of Oakland with strong ties to the school district, local non-profits and colleges. While Oakland’s Promise is far from perfect (there needs to be a more ambitious effort to improve Oakland’s schools), it will be interesting to follow.
Denver could learn much from Oakland. They started their “promise” with a college fund from private sources and significant university commitments before going to voters for a public commitment to plug a hole largely created by Colorado’s lack of support for higher education. With all the recent talk of social venture impact bonds in Colorado, Oakland’s promise program provides one of the better designs for a significant return on a public investment in terms of savings from social welfare programs and prisons. Colorado policy makers would be wise to investigate how a Colorado college promise that included a college fund for low-income families might save public funds and drive further economic development. And more importantly dramatically changing the trajectories of families as a caring physician did for my family one hundred years ago.