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Globe Editorial

Unsung options for college aid

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March 8, 2008

HARVARD MADE headlines recently by expanding financial aid, even for wealthier families. But such initiatives by the wealthiest schools affect only a small fraction of American students. For a great many promising low-income students, access to college depends on what nonprofits and smaller, lower-profile schools are doing to improve access to higher education. In Massachusetts alone, the variety and creativity of these efforts is impressive.

Financial aid isn't always enough, argues Deborah Hirsch, Mount Ida College's interim associate vice president of academic affairs. She says access also means helping students get to graduation. That means working student by student to remove barriers. To do this Mount Ida offers "intrusive advising," a model of fast help for struggling students.

At Pine Manor College, Sophia Henderson is the go-to person for financially worried students and parents, helping make sure that money woes don't knock students out of college. She helps with immediate problems and builds financial literacy through counseling and workshops, covering student loans, scholarships, bills, paperwork, and how to avoid defaulting on loan payments.

Bottom Line, a Boston nonprofit, acts like a guidance counselor, and sometimes a parent, for high school students who are poor or want to be the first in their families to go to college. There's emotional support - birthday cards, care packages, and visits to students on campus - as well as advice on where to apply given a student's academic interests and likely student loan debt. Pregnant? Family troubles? Need a job? Bottom Line also helps. The program runs in Boston, and is expanding to Worcester.

Higher education is a "pretty compelling solution to poverty," says Bob Giannino-Racine, executive director of ACCESS, a Boston nonprofit that provides financial aid counseling and scholarships to Boston public school and other students. He says the same attention the state brought to the challenge of providing access to healthcare coverage ought to be applied to college affordability. ACCESS has just launched a series of forums to stir up awareness and action.

These initiatives are praiseworthy, but schools and nonprofits shouldn't have to act on their own. As soon as is fiscally feasible, the state should increase its need-based financial aid grants and fund dual-enrollment programs that let high school students earn college credits, easing the transition from high school to college. The state could also create a financial aid endowment, calling for and matching private donations. Partnerships between colleges and employers could stake out clear career paths for students, giving them a compelling reason to graduate.

More students deserve the chance to walk across the college graduation stage.

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