A Voice from the Field: Supporting the new normal in higher education

Our old ways of imagining college don't fit today's students - but some organizations are changing the paradigm

Guest post by Sarah Wilson, Recruitment Manager, Year Up

Sarah Wilson is a recruitment manager for Year Up, a national program, founded in Boston, that provides low-income young adults, ages 18-24, with a combination of hands-on skills development, coursework eligible for college credit, corporate internships, and wraparound support. Year Up was founded by former Boston Foundation board member Gerald Chertavian.

Who can afford college these days?

For one academic year at a higher education institution, the cost, including tuition, fees, room and board, averaged $25,409 in 2014-2015 with the cost at a private higher ed institution coming in at over $40,000 and colleges like Columbia at $70,000. In today’s economic reality, that means many students can’t afford the traditional route to a degree. Since 1985, the cost of attending college has risen 538% - more than four times as fast as inflation.


Let that sink in for a second. 

So, once again, who can afford college these days? 

I recently had the honor of attending Success Boston’s event at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology for Postsecondary Career Pathways to Success for Urban Youth. This topic is near and dear to my heart. Working in student recruitment for Year Up, I constantly talk with youth who tried college and are now in debt; tried college and didn’t find any support; or tried college and couldn’t balance life, work, and school. Programs like Year Up and schools like BFIT are working to stem that tide: Year Up by providing an alternative pathway to education and BFIT by providing affordable education. 

Alternatives, it turns out, are becoming the new normal. Today, 74% of students are categorized as “post-traditional” learners, meaning that they may not have a traditional high school diploma, may have delayed postsecondary enrollment for whatever reason, or that they are attending school part time while working full time. The profile of the “traditional” college student is changing and it’s heartening to see schools, community organizations, employers, and workforce development programs meeting these students where they are, rather than pushing a path that isn’t right for them or is too expensive. 

This work is also personal for me. My passion is educational equity and access and I feel inspired by organizations and schools that work towards this mission. My own educational background is one of privilege – with a white, middle class upbringing, pursuing education was expected and cost a relative factor. But why should education be a privilege and not a right?

I work for Year Up because it offers an option to students to pursue education that they might not otherwise pursue due to external factors; I also fully support schools like BFIT that are working to make education affordable and accessible. Success Boston’s event was encouraging – hearing from alumni and students of BFIT’s program who have found success; hearing from employers looking for talented Boston youth; and seeing everyone in attendance supporting this kind of work. 

How do Boston Public Schools graduates perform in higher education? A new report finds hundreds more BPS graduates are getting through – but there is still work to be done. Click the link to download Staying the Course: Six-Year College Enrollment and Completion Experiences of BPS Class of 2011 Graduates