The National Council of Young Leaders: On the Need to Make Higher Education more Attainable

National Council of Young Leaders banner, painted by council member Francisco Garcia

Created in July 2012 in response to a recommendation from the White House Council on Community Solutions, the National Council of Young Leaders is tasked with informing policymakers, business leaders and funders about the issues faced by America’s young people. The 14 founding council members, ranging in age from 18 to 34, come from diverse upbringings in urban and rural low-income communities across the nation. They represent our country’s Opportunity Youth: the 6.7 million young Americans who are neither in school nor working, but who pose enormous potential for our economy and our future if they are provided the opportunity to get on track and get ahead. Though each council member has overcome different kinds of obstacles, they all share in common their participation in transformative youth programs that helped them become the successful young adults they are today.

In the fall of 2012, the Council released its first publication - Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America. The report outlines specific actions that could help Opportunity Youth and their communities. One of highlights of the publication is the Council’s Six Recommendations for Immediate Public Action: 1) Expand effective comprehensive programs; 2) Expand National Service; 3)Expand Private Internships; 4) Increase All Forms of Mentoring; 5) Protect and Expand Pathways to Higher Education; and 6) Reform the Criminal Justice System.

We wanted to hear the Council Members describe in their own words why these specific Recommendations are important to them and important to the success of America’s young people. Below, find out why council member Adam Strong is passionate about Recommendation #5...

Protect and Expand Pathways to Higher Education:
Make sure that college and registered apprenticeships are affordable and attainable for low-income students. Education awards, scholarships, low-cost community and state colleges, loans that are not predatory or excessively burdensome, and Pell Grants for nontraditional students must be protected and expanded, barriers to obtaining them reduced, and pathways to college strengthened. We understand that higher education is one key to lifelong success. [Recommendations to Increase Opportunity and Decrease Poverty in America, p. 8]

(Parts of Adam's bio and his photo are from the YouthBuild website)

Adam Strong was raised by his father in the Appalachian community of Jackson, KY. After high school, he enrolled at the local community college and took a position as a security guard at a mine. Unfortunately, this job didn’t last long; the mine was in decline and Adam soon found himself unemployed. A friend from high school referred him to the YouthBuild program. 

At YouthBuild, Adam took part in community service and outreach projects, while receiving a stipend. He gained construction skills, and had the opportunity to tutor through YouthBuild as a fulltime AmeriCorps member. The experience helped introduce him to new possibilities and a new perspective on life. 

Adam currently lives in Hazard, KY where he is a student at University of Kentucky. He expects to graduate in December 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science. He plans to get a job as a medical lab technician.

As a member of the National Council of Young Leaders, Adam has been active in informing policymakers about the issues faced by rural and low-income young people.

Why is this recommendation important to youth in general or to you specifically?

This recommendation is important to me specifically because I go to a four-year university right now and it’s pretty expensive. I actually started out at a community college – one of the main reasons why was just because the cost is a lot cheaper. I’ve been the recipient of a couple AmeriCorps Education Awards, which have helped me out a lot in paying for college. If it wasn’t for them I otherwise would’ve had to take out loans, so I’d be even more in debt.

My whole thing is that even though college is a direct ladder out of poverty or can help people who just want to find success or make more money, you have to go into something that there’s a ready market for. We need better advisors. There are a lot of college graduates that are unemployed right now. I believe that right now there should be more of a focus on professional programs. There are jobs readily available and there are a lot of people that, like I said, are unemployed or they’re just not satisfied after they get their college degree…So I think there’s an informational gap right now and it needs to be closed so that people know the right programs to go into. End game, you don’t want to graduate from college and you have a bunch of debt and you’re not able to put that degree towards a job. So I believe the pathways to education need to be strengthened and I believe there needs to be a strengthening of the information provided to students so that people not only can go to college and pay for college, but also do well and succeed after they get their degree.

That’s my overall feel because a lot of people in my program already got degrees and already have a lot invested in college, so they’re not really getting a payoff at this point. But college is for sure the best way to better yourself or better your situation. It’s what you should do, but at the same time I think you need to be able to make informed decisions all along the different steps of the process.

What do you think are ways we can make higher education more accessible and attainable?

I think education awards – AmeriCorps awards –  they’re a great thing and I think that’s one thing that needs to be strengthened just so more people can go on to higher education. Maybe more people need to be informed about the ways they can access these different service awards just because they offset costs for college a whole lot…Knowledge about them needs to be more available to the public.

Another thing – I know they do this at a lot of med schools – but more schools could have a tuition guarantee. You come in as a freshman and each year that you stay in college and meet the requirements, you get a guarantee that the tuition won’t go up. Because I know at my school – University of Kentucky – they raise the tuition just about every year. But if you stay in the program, it would be nice if tuition guarantee was more widespread. Just a lock-in. It wouldn’t save you a whole lot, but I’d think it could save you couple hundred or even a few thousand dollars over the four or five years it takes you to get your bachelor’s degree.

The Recommendation says higher education should be made more affordable and attainable for low-income students. A lot of the points in the recommendation focus on ways to make college more affordable, but aside from economic factors, do you believe there are certain barriers that make college unattainable for low-income students?

Just in general, if you’re a low-income student then your personal affairs or your personal lifestyle might affect whether you can go to college. There are different types of poverty; it might be money, it might be resources or a lot of other things. If you’re coming from a low-income family, they may not be able to provide you with a vehicle. If you don’t have a vehicle that means you’re going to have to live on campus. But if you live on campus and you don’t have a vehicle, you might need to find a new job. Because you need a job since your family’s not going to be able to give you money throughout college every week...So it’s really just your situation in general – not just being low-income. It’s just your lifestyle or maybe you have family ties and you have to go to a community college, or maybe you have a kid. Low-income people tend to have a lower amount of resources, like information resources. Maybe they tend not to know where to find help to pay for college or all the different programs. There are a lot of different things that can dissuade you from going to school outside just the cost of college. All those are different barriers. For a lot of people have, I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but just because of their situation it might be easier for them to go to college. 

Another thing is that, I know this is true for some of my friends, they make just enough money where they don’t actually qualify for financial aid. When you fill out your FAFSA, you have to put down your ESC – your Estimated Family Contribution. Well, I mean, if you make $50,000 or $55,000 and your mom makes $30,000 – and that’s even if you live in a dual-income household, because as you can see the trend now is a single parent raising two or three kids. In those cases, you’re only getting one resource of money and you’ve got a couple kids, so even if you make $50,000 or $60,000 you might not actually have that money to contribute towards your child’s education. In most cases, I’m not saying families that are well-off, but might be better off than say…well we’ll say in general, my dad is unemployed so I get the full amount of financial aid. But for instance, I can think of two or three specific friends of mine who actually want to go to college, but they make too much money. So they don’t actually qualify for financial aid. If they were to go to college it would be all on academic merit and loans, or just all on loans depending on what kinds of scholarships they qualify for or anything like that. Just being at a certain scale, your family doesn’t really have the money to give you access to college, but at the same time, you’re in the middle. That can kind of dissuade you, too.

The Council states in Recommendation Five, “We understand that higher education is one key to lifelong success.” What does that mean? College is important, but it’s not the only key to success?

Higher education can be a key just because, like I was saying, it in itself is probably the best –but maybe not easiest – way to propel yourself forward. If you want to provide for your family or just do something more, you should probably go to college. Really college just opens up opportunities for you to do other things, make more money, or have different jobs. But it’s only one key because some people, even if they don’t go to college they’ll still be successful just because of some of the qualities they have. It’s not just about working hard, but investing in yourself. I know this is kind of weird but I’ll get on YouTube every once in a while and I’ll listen to Jim Rohn, he’s a motivational speaker, just because he has good things to say. I think there are a lot of different factors for success. When we [the Council] went to the Opportunity Nation Summit, one of the speakers actually talked about the different factors of success. A lot of them were just about doing extracurricular activities and being active in your community. Just being active and looking for opportunities and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it or ask for information – those are all factors. Just being open in itself will create more opportunities. And that’s not just in college – having the mindset of not being afraid and not being discouraged will help propel you forward in whatever you want to do.

Why should we be particularly concerned about college accessibility right now? Do you think college is becoming less accessible?

Well you kind of just have to think about the economic factors right now. At the one end of the spectrum you have all these people saying there are no jobs and they can’t find a job. And then at the other end of the spectrum, the government is saying there are all kinds of jobs that need to be filled. So there are a lot of potential jobs opening up, but they all require some sort of skill. They may not require a four-year degree – you might just need some level of technical education – but it’s really hard now to just go into a new city and find a job. Maybe you can in certain places, but the job outlook isn’t real good right now. So the focus has been shifting more towards college.

The cost of living is going up, the cost of education has gone up dramatically. So there just aren’t a lot of resources. A lot of people are unemployed right now. Like I said before, my father, he’s unemployed. People who want to go to college are having to rely more on themselves, but it’s not just that – the cost of college keeps going up so it’s much more of an investment than it was 10 or 15 years ago. So just the way I see it, in general, it’s harder to find a job, there’s less money for your family to put in, and the overall cost of living and cost of college are going up, so a lot of people don’t want to invest in something if it’s not a for-sure thing. I have two friends who kind of want to go to college but they don’t really qualify for any financial aid so they don’t really want to potentially end up with a lot of debt and not come out with a degree that will guarantee that they get high-paying jobs that would feasibly allow them to pay off their loans. So just out of shear cost.

Also, there’s the cost of the technology that’s required for classes. If you go into anything science related you have to pay an extra fee for labs. So there are a lot of other costs that come with tuition – whether its books, or a computer. Honesty, a computer is almost mandatory now. It’s not technically mandatory, but you really do need a laptop for college. So that’s a huge cost right there. So there are a lot more barriers than just the tuition.

Tuition is one of the biggest barriers to college, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of other fees too. I almost feel like tuition is the number two barrier. This is just my personal thing, it’s not something the Council discussed, but I feel like number one is just your situation; your family circumstances just because maybe you don’t have a strong support network – everyone needs one of those to be successful because college is a huge commitment. You need to have a good support network. I just feel like your circumstances in general can be a barrier.