It's no secret that American schools are in crisis. Fewer and fewer of our students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. Many communities have high numbers of Opportunity Youth — young adults ages 16-24 who are neither in school nor working. Some 40 millions adults do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate nor prospects for a profession that provides family-supporting wages. For those that started a two- or four-year college in the Fall 2012 term for the first time only 58% return ed to the same school a year later.

This is particularly true in low-income communities, where families and schools alike are struggling for resources and wrestling with issues that interfere with learning.  For too many students, worries about money, violence in the neighborhood, and fragmented families can render school irrelevant.

But these life experiences offer our students an altogether different set of learning opportunities.  Life has put obstacles in their path, but difficult life experiences have afforded them opportunities to learn critical survival skills.  These students are smart; determination and hard work are a key component of their life experience, just not their academic experience. 

While many are successfully navigating poverty, fractured family environments, rough neighborhoods, and underperforming public schools, they struggle with a range of academic and personal vulnerabilities — from a lack of proficiency in math and English to family stresses. They often have a strong desire to succeed and extraordinary survival skills.  What they are lacking is academic confidence, and understanding of how to bring their interpersonal skills and strengths to bear in academic and professional settings.

There is a growing population of underrepresented college students who desperately want a college education and have the courage to seek it out, but don’t know how to apply their unique strengths and skills to college.  With the right support, they can withstand the isolating environments of our commuter community colleges and/or on-line programs. When introduced to high-intensity, hands-on learning that focuses on accentuating their inherent strengths, these students can thrive.

Colleges didn't create this problem of underprepared students, but they have the responsibility to address it.  And yet  — just like the students they serve — few higher education institutions are prepared for the challenge.  They need a creative, cost effective way to help students succeed, especially as we recognize that the problem goes far beyond academic preparedness, but also includes the devastating impacts of poverty, broken families, and the struggle of many different cultural groups to adapt to and succeed in our communities.