Giving students formula to succeed


Almost a third of pre-schoolers live in poverty in Miami-Dade County, and a Florida International University researcher cites the high cost of student loans as a contributor to keeping low-income residents here in poverty.

There is no question that a college education is the ladder that can lift Miami’s young people out of poverty and end the cycle for their families. Today’s college graduates earn, on average, 74 percent more than high-school graduates. A more-educated workforce is also important for the state. According to a 2013 report by Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, 65 percent of jobs in Florida will require some sort of postsecondary education by 2020.

So with students returning to public schools on Monday, what can be done to ensure that paying for college doesn’t keep Miami-Dade residents hanging from the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder?

Diamon Sparks graduated in the spring from Miami Norland Senior High. That where she participated in an initiative called College Summit, a national nonprofit that leverages the power of student leadership to create a college-going culture in low-income schools. A key component of the College Summit experience is learning the nuts and bolts of researching the best college to match a student’s academic and financial reality — while plotting a realistic a plan to pay for school. The nonprofit is committed to working with the school system to turn out “smart shoppers” of higher education.

According to a study published by College Summit, the number and percentage of students in the country resorting to loans to finance their education have increased, and their debt burdens have been rising annually. The number of borrowers increased from 23.3 million in 2005 to 38.8 million by 2012, while at the same time the average student-loan balance increased from $15,651 to $24,803.29. Low-income students are more likely to take out loans from private sources that charge higher interest rates, and low-income students, minority students and college dropouts are more likely to default on their student loans than wealthy, white, college graduates.

When Diamon crossed the stage at Miami Norland in June, she was armed with a high-school diploma, a clear path to attaining a college degree and a plan to pay for her education. She is entering Hillsborough Community College in Tampa soon and plans to transfer from there to Florida State.

Diamon, the first in her family to attend college, passed along to her high-school classmates the college-matching and financial-literacy skills she obtained through College Summit. The need for young people like Diamon to be agents of change in their schools has never been greater. The number of economically disadvantaged students in MDCPS is rising (and at an even-faster pace in Norland) while college-enrollment rates in the state are trending downward. Florida’s college enrollment from 2013 to 2014 decreased by 4.2 percent, the fourth-largest decrease in the nation. The decrease is most dramatic among African Americans.

Our high schools must evolve from being an end unto themselves into effective launch pads for college, career and a higher standard of living. MDCPS understands this, which is why the district has adopted youth-driven intervention strategies, like College Summit, that empower students to help their classmates understand the connection between their education and their future plans. In fact, MDCPS was awarded the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2012 for its overall performance and student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among low-income students and student of color.

According to College Summit’s reporting, 90 percent of this year’s class of Miami Norland participating seniors submitted at least one college application, a 6 percent increase from last year thanks to the efforts of Diamon and her fellow Peer Leaders. Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s tracking shows 68 percent of Miami Norland 12th graders touched by the program completed the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). MDCPS’s average completion rate is 43 percent, so this is a welcome and encouraging improvement.

Christopher Norwood is chair of the city of Miami Education Advisory Board. Raquel Figueroa is the director of College Summit Florida.