Thursday, May 27, 2010

Degree of Graduates

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 8:45 AM

For this week's print edition — the one with the dice on the cover — I wrote about Leadership Memphis' college attainment initiative.

In the Memphis metro area, only 23.7 percent of the population has a college degree, leaving Memphis ranked 48th out of the top 51 metropolitan areas in college attainment.

Based on research done by Joe Cortright for CEOs for Cities — which said that a one percent increase in college attainment could equal a $1 billion talent dividend for the local economy — Leadership Memphis wants to increase college attainment to almost 25 percent over the next five years.

A college degree doesn't necessarily guarantee economic prosperity but, along with children born out of wedlock, it is a strong indicator of whether or not a person will fall below the poverty line.

One of the initiative's early focuses is on those people who started college but, for whatever reason, never finished, and how to remove the obstacles to get them back in school. I put out a call for those people last week and heard some very interesting responses about their experiences.

Some found jobs within their chosen fields during college and never looked back.

David Lindsey says he was the victim of his own success in the restaurant business. As the GM of Sekisui Pacific Rim, he was making enough money to support his family, and given the choice between a good job or staying in school, he chose to drop out.

"The fact that most of my wait staff at the time had bachelors degrees didn't really motivate me to stay in school, either," he says.

Others say they left for a variety of reasons and just never made it back. Deaths in the family figured prominently in several instances, as did the sheer time and expense involved in going back to school.

Wendi Sumner-Winter has seen the problem from both sides. After high school, she waited a year before going to college. Once she enrolled at 19, however, she says she "slipped through the cracks."

"No one seemed to know I was there," she says. "It's hard to commit to it when there doesn't seem to be any way to become part of the college culture."

Within one semester, she went from being an A student to failing a class, an F that still haunts her transcripts. Because, at 30, after years of being a chef, she enrolled at CBU. Then, after she graduated, she enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing at the U of M.

“I’m kind of amazed, now, as a teacher myself, that no one noticed the nose-dive, especially in a freshman,” she says of her experience. "I think it's that way for any student who doesn't go straight from high school to college. I see this with my students, freshman mostly, all the time.

"The non-traditional students, while often doing fairly well in the courses, have a much harder time entering the culture of college, and with managing their lives as as student, plus being parents, working full time, having less-than-stellar study skills. ... No provision is made to help them get back int the game successfully."

Sumner-Winter thinks that counseling and study skills classes could help non-traditional students, if at the very least, to put them together with a core group of people who are facing similar challenges and experiences.

"Another issue is that non-traditional students do not have as many financial options. Often they have a household income that disqualifies them for grants, and so they have to take loans," she says. "Scholarships are almost exclusively geared toward kids matriculating from high school."

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