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Providing a boost: Underserved kids graduating college thanks to nonprofit

Posted at 6:38 PM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-05 00:30:19-05

MILWAUKEE — In an effort to increase equity across the city, a local nonprofit is providing a boost for high school students to not only get them a diploma, but to graduate from college.

“There is so much untapped potential among the scholars we have the great benefit of serving,” Kellie J. Sigh, Executive Director of College Possible Milwaukee said. “We’ve found, sometimes a young person has a goal and it’s the partnership with College Possible to realize that goal.”

College Possible is a national organization, focusing on helping underserved kids graduate from college, for the last 20 years. It started in Milwaukee in 2008. In that amount of time, some 385 students have graduated from college. Right now, 1,500 more are in college with 816 high school students waiting in the wings.

Essentially, a near-peer coach, or person around their age, will help guide the students along the process. From a junior in high school all the way through graduating college.

The program boasts a 98 percent college admission rate with 80 percent of the students receiving a degree. However, this college coaching program isn’t for everyone. It’s not even for the most privileged students. In fact, the program was designed to help those underserved students.

In their recruitment, the only real guidelines they have are for students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and for their household to make less than $60,000, following along with Federal Pell Grant guidelines. The students must show motivation in going to college.

College Possible partners with 15 schools in the area, including eight Milwaukee Public Schools. The students in the College Possible program are 95 percent people of color. In addition, 93 percent of the students are the first in their family to attend college. They also have an average reported annual family income of less than $29,000 per year.

"A scholar from an underserved background is two to three times less likely to graduate from college than a peer from a more affluent background,” Sigh said. “The work we do is to address that very real issue.”

It’s an ongoing disparity issue facing communities of color in Milwaukee. A Stanford University study says Wisconsin has the worst education gap of any state between African American and white students. Only the District of Columbia ranks worse.

The University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee shows there is a higher percentage of Milwaukee African Americans without a high school diploma, 17.2 percent, than those who have a college degree, 14.1 percent. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says a college graduate will make 2.3 times as much money as a high school dropout.

This kind of data is why College Possible focuses on students from underserved communities. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, over the last four years, about a third of Milwaukee’s Hispanic and Black students didn't finish high school (29.8 percent and 33.8 percent respectively).

“Education is a social determinant of health,” Sigh said. “Those with better education fare better in terms of issues with poverty, having to do with housing. It’s also a workforce issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a public health issue we’re addressing as well. Although we are certainly in the education equity lane, it really does touch all areas of society.”

This program hopes to lift up students like 17-year-old Leroy Hope.

“I’ve been accepted to everywhere but waiting for one decision,” Hope said.

That’s seven colleges that Hope has been accepted to. He says he’s always thought of going to college but wasn’t sure if he’d be able to.

Especially as he’s grown up to understand how much it costs and what needs to be done in order to qualify for aid.

“[College Possible] helped me out a lot, especially with financial aid like FAFSA,” Hope said. “That was a pain. But they helped me figure that out and they also took me on college tours. It helped me narrow down choices. If I didn’t have that, I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now.”

Hope also was able to prepare for the ACT through College Possible and take the test. That would have had a cost he’s not sure if his family could handle. That’s not mentioning the cost for applying to the eight schools Hope chose.

“That adds up and is expensive,” Hope said. “College Possible has helped me out tremendously with that.”

“Scholars give us a lot of credit but the credit is due to the scholar, frankly,” Sigh said. “There is something special that happens between the coach and the scholar. It’s something that resonates and is impactful and stays with them. So much so, they want to come back and serve in the same way.”

Inside their office in Schlitz Park, the walls are lined with past graduates. Those hundreds of lives may have not been able to graduate from college without the program. Many of which are still in Milwaukee, making a difference.

This kind of cycle is a way to combat the so-called “brain drain” Wisconsin has seen over the years; college students attend school in the state for their degree and then move outside of the state, taking their knowledge, expertise and economic impact to other parts of the country.

“This is where Milwaukee becomes more of a place for young, brilliant professionals that start in the schools we partner with and others,” Sigh said. “There are individual lives being positively affected and then coming back and giving and working in Milwaukee. They are being lifted up as beacons of hope honestly.”

That hope is exactly what Leroy is asking for. After all, it is his namesake.

“I kind of use my last name as my mantra,” Hope said. “College Possible definitely gave me some hope for going to college.”

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