May 21, 2013

Our View: Confusing process blocks college opportunity

No one wins when the doors of higher education are shut to society's newcomers.

Mohamed Hassan was speaking for many fathers of high school students when he admitted that he finds the college application process a confounding mystery.

click image to enlarge

Dejaunie Madourie, 14, a Portland High freshman, shares a laugh with AmeriCorps worker Erica Small, at right, while working together on English homework last week as part of Make It Happen! The program gives academic coaching, encouragement and college application help to students who learned English as a second language. Society benefits when students like Dejaunie gain access to higher education through programs like Make It Happen!

Press Herald File Photo

"For example, I would not know she has learned, how far that she has yet to go, where to go," the Somali immigrant told a reporter through an interpreter.

And the mystery deepens when it comes time to figure out how his family could ever pay.

Luckily, his daughter Sahara Hassan, a junior at Deering High School, is getting some help. Through a program called Make It Happen! she has been getting advice and academic coaching and encouragement since her freshman year of high school, and that will serve her well when she is filling out the applications and financial aid forms next year.

It's a program that is open to all Portland students who learned English as a second language, and it mirrors programs that provide similar help to other students from economically disadvantaged homes.

The supports that Hassan is receiving sound a lot like the advantages middle-class families already have, either from parents' personal experience of navigating the system or through hiring private counselors and test prep coaches.

At a time when higher education is a more important tool for success than ever, the college admission and financial aid process seems harder than ever to navigate. Instead of being an avenue for equal opportunity, higher education can turn into a system of perpetuated class advantage.

It's not just a lack of money that keeps some kids out of college, but an impenetrable application process that discourages families from even trying.

It's not just their problem. We all benefit when there are better-educated and better-trained people in the work force. We all pay part of the price when people are trapped in multigenerational poverty.

Refugees who had the strength and courage to escape oppression, survive hardship and come to make a life half a world away are the kinds of people who built this country. An arbitrary and confusing system should not prevent their children from making a full contribution.

There should be enough opportunity here for everyone. We need more programs like Make It Happen!


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