This is a guest post by Carina Cruz, a proud alum and now employee of Breakthrough New York. Born and raised in New York City, she went on to attend incredible institutions like Little Red Elisabeth Irwin High School and Brown University with the foundation and support that BTNY provided. Carina currently works with BTNY’s Class of 2024 and hopes to continue supporting students to and through college.
The transition from high school to college can be an academic, social, and emotional challenge.
For students who have not previously spent time on a college campus or done college-level course work, the adjustment can be especially difficult—and even lead some to drop out. First generation and low-income students are faced with the task of succeeding in a space that is completely unknown to them, while carrying the pressure to pave the way for a better life for their families.
College tours and pre-college programs can be incredible tools for demystifying the unknown for these students. Pre-college programs give high school students the opportunity to spend a few weeks living on campus and taking courses for college credit during the summer. It’s a great way to get a taste of what to expect when their first full semester begins.
The problem is, pre-college programs are expensive, and most do not offer financial aid. That makes them largely inaccessible to students from low-income backgrounds—the very students who could benefit most since they are more prone to struggle with the transition to college and less likely to graduate than their more affluent peers.
We see this first-hand at my nonprofit organization, Breakthrough New York (BTNY), which provides educational support to low-income students starting in middle school. We help 100% our students get into four-year colleges, but years ago we noticed that some of them were having trouble persisting through college. That’s why, in 2014, we added four more years of support to our program, helping students all the way through college graduation.
Among the reasons for the so-called “graduation gap” is that low-income students are less likely to have the benefit of experiencing college-going cultures in their homes or high schools. Statistically, their parents are less likely to have gone to college and their high schools are less likely to offer college-level work, so they have less support and opportunity to prepare them for the academic and culture shock once in college.
One way that institutions can help level the playing field is by making their pre-college programs more accessible to low-income students, so that they have opportunities to experience campus life and rigorous coursework before their freshman year.
Rutgers University has one of the few pre-college programs that recruits low-income and first-generation students and gives them sufficient financial aid. Students who complete Rutgers’ program go on to have an 88 percent retention rate from their freshmen to sophomore year in college, compared to a 77 percent retention rate for first-time college freshmen nationally.
A few other institutions are starting to realize the unique value that pre-college programs have for low-income students. The University of Rochester, for example, is covering 75 percent of the costs of their program for three of our Breakthrough New York high school students this summer. They will take classes, explore various fields of study, develop crucial time management skills, and learn how to excel while being away from the comfort of home. As a result, they will be better equipped to thrive when they start their college careers. And, they can save money in the long run, because obtaining credits through summer programs can accelerate the path to graduation.
Breakthrough New York is working with representatives of many other universities to make their pre-college programs more affordable for our students. We hope that more universities will follow the leadership of Rochester and Rutgers. If we as a society are going to continue championing education as a way to break the cycle of poverty, we can move closer to achieving our goal of making it more attainable by ensuring that pre-college programs are accessible to the students who need them most.