Money Isn’t Everything.

I came from a world where college was a given. My public schools were ranked among the best in the state, and I had a support network of teachers, family and friends who believed in me. Subsequently I made mostly A’s, did my homework and was an involved student. I graduated near the top of my high school class before I had a fulfilling four years at Baylor University. I graduated college debt free and had the support I needed to find my first job with relative ease.

I was lucky, but I didn’t realize just how lucky I was until a few years later. A recent study conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that of students who enrolled at public colleges or universities in the fall of 2012, only 58 percent of them actually made it to the finish line after six years. This number drops to 33 percent for those who graduated within four years. I was one of the fortunate few who had the support I needed to be part of this statistic.

After college I had the opportunity to work on the communications team at a charitable foundation here in Austin. It opened my eyes to many of our most pressing challenges in education – especially among low-income students – in large part because I worked so closely with our interns from UT Austin. They believed in the foundation’s mission at a very personal level, having spent time at the intersection of education and financial hardship. They gave me a better understanding of the challenges they faced each day at school.

A need for change

Perhaps one of my biggest takeaways was that college success looks a little different for everyone and that there is no set formula for getting to and through college. Each student faces a unique set of obstacles and each of their needs look a little different. Below are a few common challenges I came across during those conversations:

  • Family obligations;
  • A lack of understanding about the college application process;
  • Little access to valuable scholarships; and
  • Limited resources.

Additionally, I learned that many students may be the first in their families to attend college and don’t have someone guiding them through the application process, or that many of them come from families that expect them to stay home and work. Still, others may want to avoid student debt or simply can’t afford childcare. No two stories are the same. However, I found a common thread for each story: these students needed support beyond just the financial. They needed emotional support to make it to the finish line.

So, where does that leave designers? We’ve been talking a lot about education and many of these challenges certainly are design problems that deserve our attention. I propose a model that is two-pronged, offering both financial and emotional support for these students:

Financial: This support could be help for a student looking for financial aid opportunities, or educating a student who is planning on taking out a loan.

Emotional: This includes resources and counseling to help students with the day-to-day hardships they might encounter. This could look like everything from mentorship for those who are having a hard time transitioning into college life, to challenging circumstances like a death in the family or pregnancy.

And this framework isn’t new. While I was at the foundation, I worked on a scholarship program that was seeing great success in setting students on the right path. Graduation rates were impressive – around 80 percent. Their secret? A holistic approach that addressed the problem from every angle, including both components of financial and emotional support:

  • A scholarship award;
  • Counseling for those experiencing emotional and financial challenges;
  • A portal for students with resources for those dealing with stress and challenging life circumstances;
  • The technology each student needs to be successful; and
  • Online access to webcasts on popular topics.

While this model is a good starting point, there is still work to be done. And not only are we tasked with creating models that offer multi-faceted supports, we must ensure these models are scalable. I am hopeful that we’re on track for cracking the code to college success and giving each student the toolkit they need to reach their goals.

Alexa Hoisager

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