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Is a college degree really worth it? With lists circulating of highly successful college drop-outs like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and other luminaries, the value of a four-year degree can seem up for debate. Yet research shows that college matters a lot for future financial stability: More than 60% of jobs in the US require postsecondary education and training, and college graduates have significantly higher lifetime earnings, are less likely to be unemployed, and receive other important social, economic, and health benefits. In the US, and especially in our globalized economy, the economic value of being highly educated and skilled is only continuing to grow. But there is one group of students who need special support to make sure they can access and succeed in higher education: first-generation college students. 

The label “first-generation college student” means that the student’s parents did not go to, or complete, a four-year college program. According to Dick Startz at the Brookings Institute, these first-generation college students face unique challenges when pursuing a four-year college degree. First-generation college students are much more likely to enroll in less selective schools, which is a problem because their graduation rates—already lower than students with a college-educated parent—become even lower as the school selectivity decreases. For those first-generation college students who attend a highly selective school (think Harvard), their graduation rates are about 10% lower than their peers. But less than half of first-generation college students graduate from minimally selective or open-enrollment schools (and their graduation rates are much lower than their peers), and these types of schools are where the majority of these students enroll. While first-generation college students are often coming from low-income households, Startz’s research, aligning with others, shows that this graduation gap is not only because of parental income. There is something unique about being a first-generation college student that makes these students need more support to successfully complete college.

Here’s where College Visions, a non-profit based in Providence, Rhode Island, comes in. College Visions focuses on first-generation college students, helping high school seniors apply to colleges and then supporting them on their educational journey toward graduation. College Visions provides one-to-one advising programs for 12th graders (expanding to 11th graders now too!) to help them research the best colleges for them, apply, and enroll. Once these students are in college, College Visions provides individual advising, financial aid, and encouragement to help keep these students on track for graduation. College Visions also reaches out to college educators and institutions to train them to be effective advisors and develop successful college access and completion programs for first-generation students. 

The proof of their track record is in the comparative numbers: while only 55% of overall Providence high school graduates enroll in college, 98% of College Visions students enroll in college. Only 69% of Providence students (and 76% of Rhode Island students) return for a second year of college, while 92% of College Visions students return. And while only 41% of low-income Rhode Island students graduate within six years of their initial enrollment, 68% of College Visions students earn a degree in six years! This mentorship program makes a difference!

If you are in the Providence, RI area, you can volunteer in so many different ways: for interview prep, care package assembly, college application assistance, financial aid and CV workshops, and career planning advice! And anyone can donate much-needed funds that go to grants and scholarships for these students. There may also be a similar program in your area that supports first-generation college students—so you can look into how you can help ensure that education remains “the great equalizer,” as Horace Mann envisioned!

Thank you, College Visions, for making the world a better place!