I grew up in a household that could be described as less-than-middle-class. After my parents divorced, my mom received aid like food stamps and AFDC to help care for my brother and me. My dad was involved with an experiment in rural living that was similar to the “voluntary simplicity” movement: he heated with wood and disdained running water and indoor plumbing for several years – in the Upper Midwest. Neither of my parents had completed high school, yet both ultimately received GEDs or the equivalent.
I pretty much paid my own way through college.
I did so with a combination of loans, grants, part-time jobs and a couple scholarships. In retrospect, I wish I had received more guidance — as well as more non-loan aid, but c’est la vie — however, I am thankful for the advice I received from teachers, counselors and others, like my step mother who had done the whole college/financial aid application carousel.
I didn’t visit any of the schools I applied to. I simply picked the one that seemed best and showed up for orientation. I finished my undergraduate degree in just over 5 years and went on my merry way. Because of the opportunities that their mom and I have had, my kids will have much greater opportunity than we did. And I am really thankful for that.
Yet, there are many who won’t even have the chance at college that I had because the higher ed landscape is so different today. College costs, financial aid quagmires, declining graduation rates and lack of information, guidance and adequate preparation at the high school level all conspire to keep bright, otherwise-qualified students from attending college.
In spite of all the negative news surrounding higher ed and underprivileged students getting left behind, there are some bright spots to be thankful for. In the wake of a New York Times report earlier this year, Harvard and other Ivies have stepped up their efforts to work with underfunded high schools to identify bright students who may not have had the means or guidance to know that they could attend such prestigious schools.
Even though the sequester slashed many financial aid programs, and the second round of cuts looms, Congress did get off their hands long enough to do something about the student loan interest rates that doubled on July 1 — due to their own lack of prior action. Sometimes the things to be thankful for are small…
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a global leader in education advocacy, has funded a number of projects that will offer guidance in reshaping the way our education and financial aid systems work. Examining subjects like progress-based financial aid, and bigger credit loads to move students through college in 4 years, Gates-funded initiatives have offered Congress several innovative viewpoints as they prepare to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). The President’s own higher education initiatives could use a little of the innovation demonstrated by the Gates initiatives. I am thankful that there are organizations out there willing to fund and perform the research to look at ways to improve our higher ed and financial aid systems.
Finally, The United States recently set an depressing record when the number of homeless students across the country reached an all-time high last year. More than 1.1 million students in preschool or K-12 were homeless during the 2011-12 school year, fully 2 percent of all students in the nation.
In response, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (WA), Mary Landrieu (LA), and Tammy Baldwin (WI) introduced the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act on Thursday in an effort to help homeless students be able to afford and attend college.
Currently, there are many hurdles that are unique to homeless youth that make it more difficult both to get to college and to stay afloat once they’re there. Many have difficulty establishing residency in order to qualify for in-state tuition, and they must have their status as independent students without parental support re-determined every year. This bill would remove those barriers, providing in-state tuition for homeless and foster youth and allowing their unaccompanied status to be set in perpetuity.
In addition, the bill would help homeless and foster youth find housing both during the school year and between terms. And it would instruct the General Accounting Office to conduct more research on education trends among homeless and foster students so further outreach can be provided.
Reading about programs like this reminds me that I have much to be thankful for in my own life; and makes me thankful for the people out there who are still dedicated to improving the lives of less fortunate individuals through education and opportunity.