Commentary: Urban Students Need A College Degree

Donald L. Hense | 3/27/2012, 1:30 p.m.

Recently, a U.S. presidential candidate dismissed President Obama's call for higher education for high-school graduates as "snobbery." Plainly, the candidate has not spent much time in urban America where, unlike in middle class suburban, affluent exurban and rural communities, further education is the key to preventing poverty from being handed down from one generation to the next.

As the head of our region's largest network of public charter schools, I operate five high schools in inner city Washington D.C. and Baltimore. From experience, I know that urban students are capable of becoming highly educated. Unfortunately, low expectations--in our public schools and society at large--too often prevent them from realizing the benefits that higher education provides.

Earning a college degree offers urban youth opportunities that would be denied them without one. Adults with a bachelor's degree earn over 60 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, on average, according to the U.S. census. Over a lifetime, that gap can be as high as $1 million.

Unemployment statistics tell the same story. High school dropouts who are 25 or older are more than three times as likely to be jobless than college graduates. Their peers with only a high-school diploma are twice as likely not to have a job as those who have a college degree, the U.S. Department of Labor reports.

More than money and jobs, adults with only a high-school diploma are 12 times more likely to serve time in prison than their college-educated peers. Adults who fail to graduate high school are 19 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates, according to U.S. Department of Justice and College Board statistics.

I know the difference earning a college degree can make. Running Friendship House, a community based nonprofit that served low-income families in Northeast D.C., I came to believe that the children in our community were destined to become our clients, unless they could access a high-quality public education.

Accordingly, in 1997 I founded Friendship Public Charter School, which operates six public charter school campuses and manages five traditional public schools. We specialize in providing students from our most vulnerable and underserved communities the education they need to be prepared for college, beginning at pre-K through the twelfth grade.

Friendship believes in providing new opportunities to our students that typically are available only to students at private and suburban public schools. One example of this is the Advanced Placement and Early College courses that we offer our high school students. These help prepare students for college, and offer them a more rigorous academic environment than typically available at neighborhood schools. They also enable students to earn college credit for college-level work in high school, for example with our partners at the University of Maryland.

Unlike some presidential candidates, we understand that going to college in America is not simply about academic ability. To this end, we also invest heavily in providing the necessary financial and emotional support that the journey to college demands--support that middle class students have the luxury of being able to take for granted.