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Reno High School’s We The People team advisor Richard Clark during the final dress rehearsal before the statewide competition on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020 inside Reno High School. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

Tumultuous times! Democrats are advocating for us to get out and vote. Republicans are advocating for protecting our businesses. The WEA is advocating for teacher protections in K-12. But who is advocating for our most vulnerable students’ affordable access to a degree in higher education?

Like many of our fractured systems, the pandemic shed a light on the inequities in our higher educational system: lack of reliable Wi-Fi access to participate in online learning; lack of food and safe housing; lack of adequate advising as to how to navigate the complex process of applying for and then funding an education.

Did you know that even before the upheaval of COVID-19, low-income (often minority, first generation) students graduated at roughly one-third the rate of higher income students? Studies show that college graduation rates align with the income level of the student’s family (see: U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics/NCES). Those in the lowest quintiles are least likely to graduate because they often lack the support structure to be successful, taking with them student loan debt that they can’t pay back because they don’t have the degree that affords them the better paying job.

My work as the college and career facilitator at Reno High School the last 5 and a half years has made it abundantly clear that too few people, in K-12 and higher education, are advocating for these bright, motivated students looking to create a better life for themselves and their families. The college application process has become extremely time-consuming and complex, as has navigating the financial aid/scholarship process. 

But once a student is in college is when the struggle truly begins. I’ve watched as students struggle to study and learn from home environments that are not always conducive to academic excellence. Low-income students often are working while managing heavy course loads. In some cases, home environments actually provide barriers as students are pulled from their studies to supervise younger siblings and/or manage poverty, health and addiction issues of family members.

Higher education, like so many industries, is adapting to a COVID/post-COVID world with less funding. As these institutions and the stakeholders who support them reimagine and adapt to our new reality, it is imperative that they think outside the box. It is also imperative that they do not settle for the status quo, merely protecting the few support structures in place such as TMCC’s Summer Bridge, Nevada Promise and UNR’s Pack Advantage programs. 

Higher education must prioritize the needs of these students over opulent dorms, state of the art recreation centers and sparkling new academic buildings. Colleges need to prioritize financial aid, affordable housing and peer and adult mentors who help students find internships and career opportunities so that they can graduate and successfully launch their careers.

Why does this need to be part of our collective dialogue? Because studies show that a college degree still equates to lifetime earnings almost double those without a degree — and also opens the door to more career options. Adults who are able to support their families and participate fully in society strengthen the social infrastructure for everyone.

Stephanie Lerude is a college/career advisor and vulnerable student advocate and former WCSD employee.

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