College Signing day 2012. Photo courtesy of SA2020.
College Signing day 2012. Photo courtesy of SA2020.

Monday marked the official kick-off of Destination College San Antonio’s College Week, SA2020’s six-day rally to celebrate San Antonio as a “college town” and a college-going city. First lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to join the effort in San Antonio on Friday at the University of Texas at San Antonio to connect these local goals with those of President Barack Obama“to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020.

The folks at SA2020 have infused the week with wacky wardrobe suggestions to give a “spirit week” vibe to complement the serious brainstorming and collaborating going on around town.

Theme Days:

Monday – “My Future’s So Bright” (Sunglasses were the accessory of the day.)

Tuesday – Silly Sock Day, because, why not?

Wednesday – For “Hats Off To Higher Education,” wear a fun hat.

Thursday – “Dress for Success” by wearing a necktie.

Friday – On College Shirt Day show your school spirit for your favorite college or university.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Café College will host elementary and middle school families to promote early planning for college.

Thursday evening the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will host a Career Block Party at the Witte Museum where students will be encouraged to think about what their “dream jobs” are and what higher education path they’ll need to pursue.

Finally, on Friday the Mayor’s Signing Ceremony invites high school seniors who have already committed to their college of choice to gather at UTSA for a celebration with other college-bound peers to hear from the first lady and Mayor Julián Castro.

The week culminates in the Destination College Summit on Saturday. High school students are invited to the San Antonio College campus to explore the various ways to pay for college, and how to navigate the financial aid and application processes.  They can attend workshops on health, leadership and other topics, as well as seek advice on how to plan a path toward a rewarding career.

Destination-College-Summit_image

While all of this is going on to engage the students themselves, adults are gathering behind the scenes to brainstorm ways to overcome the barriers to college completion.

Leslie Helmcamp, policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP)
Leslie Helmcamp

At Café College on Monday, Leslie Helmcamp, a policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), led a workshop and discussion with community education partners to discuss policy-level tools for making college more accessible to students and adult learners who face financial barriers. She presented a documentary (available on the CPPP website) that brings the statistics to life in the stories of real people fighting for a better future in spite of overwhelming financial burdens.

Rather than looking at sweeping, mass statistics like poverty rates, the CPPP tools focus on what Helmcamp calls “moveable points.” These are smaller, more specific goals. Tackling specific facets of an issue makes targets easier achieve for policy-makers and investors. While each moveable point might be more modest than, say, “the war on poverty,” they are more actionable and more likely to be successful.

“When we’re looking at the college completion agenda, there are lots of moveable points,” Helmcamp said.

CPPP has taken many of the moveable points—like the FAFSA completion rate and two-year college completion rate for full-time students — and created a tool called the Texas Regional Opportunity Index (TROI) that allows users to compare statistics across the state.  Policy makers and nonprofits can use the TROI to determine the relative needs or strengths of Texas counties.

Courtesy of CPPP
Courtesy of CPPP. Click to enlarge.

For instance, Bexar County fares relatively well in FAFSA completion, but our college completion rates are below the state average.

Helmcamp reminded the group that state comparisons are not necessarily indicators of absolute health. Among the states, Texas ranks dead last in high school completion rates and has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

But it’s not enough to know the statistics – in order to effect change one has to understand the why the numbers are where they are. What keeps San Antonians from completing college?

The answers are overwhelmingly financial. Sticker shock alone is enough to make college seem impossible. For those who do start college, financial instability often creates such drag on their studies that eventually they forgo graduation to address more urgent needs.

Students who have a college savings account in their own name are seven times more likely to go to college, but saving for college is harder than it sounds for those living paycheck to paycheck. These families often have to make choices between food and fuel to get to work.

In fact, according to Helmcamp, the primary concern for many students already enrolled in community college is not passing classes or proficiency in a subject, but rather life circumstances that interfere with their ability to study, get to class and focus on learning. To invest in education without taking into account the financial burdens on students, especially adult learners, is like pouring water into a bottomless bucket.

Leslie Hellencamp speaking at Cafe College.
Leslie Hellencamp speaking at Cafe College.

Policy makers and job creators can also use the CPPP’s Family Budget Calculator, which compares regional cost of living with job and salary opportunities in the same area. The statistics can be adjusted to reflect the number of workers and dependents per household.

The budget is an update of the 1963 poverty metric, developed for Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” which is largely acknowledged to be too simplistic to reflect modern financial realities.

For children and high school students, the road to college is about gathering momentum. As they make their way through applications, standardized tests, essays and interviews, they need academic cheerleaders and coaches creating a culture of “you can!” That’s what SA2020’s week of pep rally atmosphere is all about.

Meanwhile, the reality of the college price tag looms, intimidating and discouraging many. Opening up the road to college and career opportunities will require strategic support for those overwhelmed by economic hardship. Partners like CPPP are working to provide that support.

This duality – wacky dress and serious subjects – speaks very well to the multi-layer approach needed to influence education outcomes in the city. Policy makers, educators, parents and job creators all have a role to play in bolstering the college culture in San Antonio. While some are seeking solutions to complex problems like accessibility and financing, others are casting a vision for students and adult learners to grasp the opportunities that are far more real than they might ever have dreamed.

*Featured/top image: College Signing day 2012. Photo courtesy of SA2020.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.