Dr. Kevin Walthers

Dr. Kevin Walthers

It is widely understood that the path to a middle class career requires some level of education beyond high school. Perhaps less well realized is that access to higher education is not evenly distributed.

In his recent book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, author Paul Tough sheds new light on how our national system of higher education can be more of an obstacle to success than an engine for economic growth. He explains how access to selective colleges and universities has more to do with economic status than merit.

The measures used by elite colleges — GPA, ACT/SAT scores and community service — are more readily available to families that can afford tutors, coaches and college admission consultants. For students from low income and working-class families, the college admissions process appears to be no less complicated than quantum physics.

While the United States trails only Canada, Japan and the Republic of Korea in post-secondary attainment rates, a closer look at attainment shows that students from working-class and lower income families succeed at a lower rate than those from middle- and upper class-families. The National Center for Education Statistics also reports attainment gaps for traditionally underserved Latino and African American communities.

Thomas Lamica spent three hours Friday watching hordes of high school students learning about new career opportunities while roaming the Hancock College Santa Maria campus during the 15th annual Career Exploration Day. “It’s great for them to kind of get some focus on what their possible career choices will be,” said the AHC project director who helped put together this year’s event.

The faculty and staff at Allan Hancock College reject the idea that college attainment should be reserved for a select few. We believe that we are changing the odds for our community by offering pathways into careers that will support a family on the Central Coast.

The community-funded Hancock Promise demonstrates that there is a demand for post-secondary education throughout all income groups in Northern Santa Barbara County. Over the past two years we have seen enrollment of recent high school graduates balloon from about 900 students per year to more than 1,500 students this fall.

The Hancock Promise offers a scholarship that pays for first-year tuition and fees for local high school graduates. The Hancock Promise is powerful not only because it is a scholarship, but because it comes with a clear message: if you graduate from a local high school, your first year here is free. Admission is not subject to the luck of the draw after families wade through complex bureaucratic admissions processes and expensive application fees. There is no need for private guidance counselors to navigate high school scheduling. Our message is simple: just graduate from high school and enroll at Allan Hancock College – our counselors and staff will take care of the rest.

The health of our economy is based on the ability to hire highly trained workers in a variety of fields. While elite institutions are making it more difficult for working-class families to enroll, much less earn a college degree, Hancock is changing the odds by making college affordable and attainable for our entire community.

Kevin G. Walthers, Ph.D., is the superintendent/president of Allan Hancock College.

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