It’s that time of year when high school students heading to college receive their acceptance letters, along with elaborate welcome packages and tantalizing college gifts. About 45% of seniors heading to college this fall will identify as a non-white race according to the 2020 Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education published by the American Council on Education. Unfortunately, a significant number will not reach their second year. According to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about 30% of Hispanic students and 34% of black students stop enrolling after their first year of college.
The class of 2021 at St. Benedict’s Prep – a school that caters primarily to black and Hispanic students from Newark and surrounding areas, New Jersey – will challenge those statistics. In a typical year, 98% of our graduates go to college. More important, however, is the fact that 86% of Benedict graduates continue to persevere in college.
Why are Benedict graduates, the majority of whom are students of color, persisting in higher education at a rate well above the national average? For starters, our school’s motto, “Benedict’s Hates a Quitter,” instills an inner resilience that serves young men and women quite well in college. The second factor is an intentional college placement program that matches students with the best-suited options and guides them through the final decision.
A lot is at stake for the students we support, so it is essential that they land in schools that offer them the best chances of success. With the May 1 decision day fast approaching, we encourage students of color and the adults who counsel them to consider three essentials:
1. Affordability. It’s not complicated. When low-income students receive sufficient financial assistance to take the constant worry of paying for their college education, they’ll focus on their education and excel. In our experience, affordability and persistence in college are inextricably linked, which is why we review every financial aid program given to every senior in Saint-Benoît.
Sometimes the stars line up perfectly; the first choice school is one that meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. The list of institutions with the capacity to do this is extremely limited, so we urge students to focus on colleges where they won’t be struggling with huge debt. Turning down your “dream school” for second or third choice with a much better financial offer can be disappointing, but it’s a decision our graduates appreciate.
In December 2020, The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed data from the US Department of Education showing that the median amount borrowed through the federal PLUS parental loan program was $ 50,000 or more. The last thing Saint Benedict’s parents need is more debt, which is why we ask students to only borrow from the Federal Student Loans Program. Almost all of our seniors borrow $ 5,500 a year, but that’s at a lower interest rate than parent PLUS loans and payments are delayed for up to six months after graduation from college. This is one way we have been successful in keeping the median debt borne by the families of St. Benedict at around $ 25,000.
2. Inclusiveness. There is no doubt that our graduates experience culture shock when they leave Newark and arrive on campuses where they are the only person of color on the team or one of the few minorities in the highly regarded STEM program. Every school talks about a good diversity game, but we take a close look at what they actually offer to support students of color. This can include summer learning, tutoring services, affinity groups, and other programs.
The assessment process can also work in two directions. Colleges often consider applicants based on the backgrounds of their high school graduates. We do the same by keeping an eye out for gray bees in college and tracking their performance. When they are doing well, we build a pipeline of students to school. This is especially important in predominantly white institutions, as gray bees meet on campus and build their own support system.
3. Knowledge. It is a term we use to describe the extent or degree of awareness of students on campus. When a university admissions officer talks about an essay written by one of our students three years ago, or closely follows a gray bee’s progress long after admission, I know this institution will watch over our children.
Another way to foster knowledge is programs designed to help low-income, first-generation students succeed in college. Very good ones, like the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) in New Jersey, start students early, usually in the summer.
We strongly recommend these programs to students of color. You will have time to prepare. You will be in contact with like-minded students who understand your experience. The campus will also be less busy, which means you can take the opportunity to build relationships with faculty and administrators, the people who can help you navigate over the next four years.
The 2021 class has a lot to think about, especially in this pandemic year. But if your goal is to persevere and succeed in college, think more with your head and less with your heart when deciding where to enroll.
Didier-Jean Baptiste is Dean of Seniors and University Internships at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey.