On Students and Dreams

The 111th Congress ended 2010 with one of the most highly productive lame-duck sessions.  However, one bill Congress was not able to pass was the DREAM ACT, effectively shutting the door of opportunity for thousands of students in the U.S. who came illegally but who desire to stay and contribute to the country they consider home.  The defeat of this legislation caused me to reflect on our country’s commitment to supporting youths’ dreams.  Below are a few comments building on this reflection.

The Bad: Pressure to control illegal immigration led to the defeat of the DREAM Act, now pressure to control the debt may defeat fully funding Pell grants

By 2050, Texas, California and many other states will be majority Hispanic.  This population also greatly lags other populations in college graduation rates.  It’s time legislators stopped getting bogged down by rhetoric about amnesty (which the DREAM Act is not) and started acting responsibly to improve education outcomes for this population because they will play an increasingly important role in the economic growth of this country.

On that same note, in the debate about funding for the Federal Pell Grant Program for low-income students, the discussion on national policy is not where it needs to be.  While protected by stopgap legislation until March, there is great concern that Pell Grant’s budget will be slashed at that point.  It is widely known that affordability is one of the single strongest barriers to retention and success of students (See Public Agenda report for more).  Yes, we are in a difficult budgetary time, but underinvesting in our education is not the way to spur the economic growth to get us out of this mess. 

The Bold: A national funder and local community work to catalyze student dreams

Meanwhile, communities cannot afford to wait for national policy to catch up with the realities of poor educational outcomes.  The Lumina Foundation is a national funder of higher education reform that has taken an active role in inspiring change.  As part of one of their signature initiatives, Achieving the Dream, Lumina gave Houston Community College (HCC) a grant to improve its use of data and pilot and scale reforms that would improve the success of community college students.  HCC developed learning communities pairing their student success course and developmental education courses with core subject classes and saw a 10 point jump in course completion for African-Americans and a 3 point jump for Hispanic students. 

A local funder, The Houston Endowment provided further support to scale Achieving the Dream to all colleges in the Gulf Coast region of Texas.  And they didn’t stop there.  Now The Houston Endowment is investing in a new initiative by Houston A+ Challenge, Preparing to Dream.  Inspired by Lumina’s initiative, Preparing to Dream aims to improve post-secondary access and success by reaching students in high school and helping to improve paths to college.  These initiatives have successfully involved a broad community of philanthropists, schools districts, educators, local government, and nonprofits, providing a model for catalyzing change across a community. 

In this tough economic climate, it is imperative that we not turn our backs on the dreams of our youth and our future.  The challenges to improving educational performance are big and will only become bigger tomorrow, unless there is a concerted effort to reverse the trend that includes all stakeholders at both the local and national level.

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