11/27/2013 10:51 am ET

Obstacles Preventing Access to Higher Education for All

Recently, President Obama took to the road to explain the need to obtain a higher education. The president urged America to fund post-secondary institutions and stressed their significance in our global economy, saying:

The unemployment rate for Americans with at least a college degree is about a third lower than the national average. The incomes of people with at least a college degree are more than twice what the incomes are of Americans who don't have a high school diploma.

As a study abroad advisor at Middlebury College, I help students to get the most out of their college experience every day. Yet in spite of the growing importance of higher education, it has become increasingly stratified: According to education researchers Carnevale and Strivers, students in the wealthiest 10 percent of institutions pay 20 cents for each dollar spent on them. Students in the poorest 10 percent of colleges pay 78 cents for each dollar spent on them.

For me, it wasn't enough to help students who were already on-track to graduate. I feel compelled to investigate the barriers that students face in obtaining a college degree. With so much emphasis on cost, I expected to hear from students who were discouraged against enrolling in college by the burden of debt necessary to graduate. Instead, I found students navigating increasingly complex systems to pursue higher education anyway. These students have heard the message that no matter how expensive, no matter how long it takes them to pay off their loans, it would be far too costly for them not to attend college.

On board the Millennial Trains Project, I had the opportunity to meet with 13 incredible young adults, ages 17 to 24, and I've begun chronicling their stories. These young people are so resilient -- each one overcoming numerous barriers while juggling classes, jobs, family commitments and piles of financial aid paperwork and scholarship applications with enviable poise.

In Salt Lake City, I met Kevin, a college sophomore who graduated from Roosevelt High School, which was characterized as a "drop-out factory" by the documentary Waiting for Superman. Kevin is driven to finish college so that he can go back to inspire others in his community to pursue higher education.

In Chicago, Osiris told me that after getting admitted with a scholarship, her undocumented status kept her from attending college this year. Fortunately, an executive order called Deferred Action has allowed young people who were brought to the U.S. as children to obtain Social Security Numbers, and that means Osiris will be eligible for college and the scholarships to pay for it in time to start next year.

Alycia met me in Pittsburgh, where she told me about creating a college club with a local teacher at her small-town high school. In McKeesport, which has lost two-thirds of its population since the decline of the local steel mills, many of Alycia's peers chose, "going for the easy money," selling drugs. The picture looked bleak, but she found and inspired others to seek an alternative.

From San Francisco to Washington, I've learned that the barriers to completing college are as diverse as the people who faced them: social pressures, inadequate financial aid, motivation, poor academic preparation, lack of knowledge about applying, fear of crushing student loan debt and the list goes on. Any approach to increasing college acceptance and graduation rates needs to address many of these barriers to be effective.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), has done a great job of scaling up programs for students, parents and schools to increase knowledge about college and how to pay for it through their College Changes Everything campaign and the ISACorps program, which places recent college graduates in local communities throughout the state. Their work has spread awareness of the importance of college in Chicago as well as rural areas, helping first-generation and low-income students to begin the college application process early enough to gain acceptance and complete financial aid applications.

Initiatives like this in Illinois have made great strides in getting students to college, but the number of low-income graduates has increased little. Few programs have been able to target hard-to-reach rural areas or even small or medium-sized cities.

Another issue is that programs designed to help students overcome all of the complicated barriers have little to offer students once they have been accepted and paid their first semester's bill. Many of the students I spoke with were in college and struggling to find the academic, financial, and personal support that they need to continue their education and graduate. For example, Alycia told me that she nearly had to drop out at the beginning of her second year of college, when she realized that scholarships that had paid for her first year were non-renewable.

The next vista is exploring how to both enroll students and help them persist to graduation as quickly as possible. As students progress through college, their coursework gets harder, while the barriers that they overcame to get there continue to exert pressure on their lives. We need to identify solutions to ease the burden of applying for financial aid and scholarships, to advise students on navigating much more difficult coursework than they've previously experienced and to help them graduate within four years with a career or next step in mind. I will be identifying and engaging with local partners here in Vermont to engage with students as early as possible and maintain that engagement consistently from the first ideas of college in childhood through college graduation.