By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

The benefits of a university education are unquestionable. The average U.S. college graduate earns nearly twice as much as those with only a high school education. In the coming decade, the availability of jobs requiring a college-level degree will increase much more rapidly than those that do not require a postsecondary degree. In response to the growing need for postsecondary credentials as a “prerequisite for the new economy,” President Obama’s recent educational reform plan is working towards making college education affordable for all American families. However, while the president seeks to make college affordable for all income levels across America, he leaves another equally important challenge unaddressed—ensuring that all students, regardless of their income level, have the opportunity to attend selective universities.

Obama’s efforts to reform education have instigated the largest investment in student aid since the G.I. bill, leading to an efficient system that allows college students to pay for college and manage debt. One of the main focuses of the Obama administration is the expansion of education tax credits. In 2009, his administration established the American Opportunity tax credit to assist families with college tuition. It serves 9.4 million American students and families each year in “providing up to $10,000 over four years for families earning up to $180,000.” Before that, in 2008, the administration oversaw an increase to $5,500 in the maximum amount awarded in a federal Pell Grant.

While lowering costs of education play an essential role in motivating students to pursue postsecondary education, high quality college education must be offered to low-income students to encourage the completion of their degrees and the pursuit of graduate-level education. Every year, thousands of academically successful low-income high school students in the United States choose colleges that fall short of matching their academic potentials. Oftentimes, secondary schools catering to a low-income student body lack the college advisory programs that open students’ eyes to their extensive college options. Such schools should look towards the Preuss School in San Diego as a model to fulfill their students’ college aspirations.

The Preuss School is one of the “top transformative schools in the nation.” It is a charter school for students in grades 6-12 directed by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The Preuss educational model provides low-income and first-generation students from all over San Diego County with an opportunity to attend some of the most prestigious universities in the nation. All 96 students in the 2013 graduating class received acceptance to a four-year university. More impressively, 800 of its graduates went on to attend select universities such as Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth as well as various University of California schools.

The Preuss School’s success rate of integrating its students into prestigious university institutions brings the state and national education system into perspective. Educators find it difficult to motivate academically successful adolescents from low-income backgrounds to apply to selective four-year universities. This is mainly due to pressure from friends and family to work after high school. From my firsthand experience teaching at Preuss, I believe that the Preuss model of educational success provides a blueprint to address this issue. This model is based on a range of research-based strategies “proven to help prepare low –income students to be first-time college attendees.”

A study by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby and Harvard professor Christopher Avery revealed that students who attend more selective universities are more likely to complete their bachelor’s degree because such universities often provide substantial scholarship packages that decrease the amount of student debt significantly. Compared to students who begin their postsecondary education at four-year colleges, community college students are “less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree or continue their education beyond it.” Students who enter immediately into four-year selective universities are not only more likely to receive their bachelor’s degree, but are also more likely to further their education. Salary levels tend to increase with higher levels of education. While bachelor’s degree holders make an average of $50,000 a year, master’s degree holders receive an average of $60, 000 a year while doctorate holders receive an average of $70,000 a year.

The high rate of acceptance into prestigious universities for Preuss students is a reflection of how the school takes into consideration its students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and provides them with a supportive network of truly altruistic individuals that encourage them every step of the way. While students from low-income backgrounds often recognize that a college education will provide them with a better future, there is oftentimes an insufficient support at home that discourages them from considering college as an option. Students whose parents never attended college often do not experience the same levels of encouragement and motivation at home to attend college. These parents often encourage their children to find employment right after high school to support the family. College, with its extra costs, is perceived as an extra financial burden.

At Preuss, volunteer tutors and mentors develop meaningful with students, keeping them grounded in their goals to attend prestigious universities. The faculty, staff, tutors and mentors are dedicated to the motto “leave no child behind.” The relationships fostered with the students allow them to monitor each student’s performance and mental health. It is essential to identify early on when the student may be feeling off, in order to work with the student to find a potential solution to the problem.

Mentors and tutors serve as role models, teachers and friends to the designated student. Most are college graduates or seniors who have undergone the college and financial aid application process and are able to assist students and their parents in this overwhelming and arduous task. The dedicated faculty, mentors and tutors at Preuss provide a support base for college aspirations that is often unavailable at home. These individuals ensure that disadvantageous socio-economic backgrounds are not an obstacle to success. One student at Preuss requested a mentor because she wanted more “reasonable” advice. She felt more comfortable confiding some things to a mentor rather than to her friends or parents. By simply being there for the students, mentors and tutors are able to influence their perceptions of college while building students’ self-esteem and confidence.

Tutors specialize in an academic subject and usually volunteer a few hours a week. With their educational expertise, tutors deeply enrich the learning process. Because of the school’s location close to UCSD, most of its tutors are UCSD students. From my experiences as a tutor at Preuss, I can acknowledge that the students view me as a role model. The presence of a UCSD student in the classroom is an essential source of inspiration. The best information about university entrance requirements and campus life can only come from someone with firsthand experience, which is why the Preuss model promotes this bilateral exchange between its high school and prestigious universities.

When I first began tutoring at Preuss, I dreaded the adolescent rebellion against new teachers. However, I realized that I was able to help with college advisory, giving students essential information about my campus life, the application process, the classes and so on and so forth. As I became source of guidance for their future lives, I rapidly built a connection with my students on a more personal level. I learned to relate more to my students as a peer rather than as an overbearing authority figure, which allowed me to create and maintain a better rapport. As a student coming from a low-income background myself, I can identify how financial struggles at home can distract from the learning process. I know how important it is for adolescents to have a friendly hand to reach out to in times of personal duress. As I became more familiar with my students, I could identify their off days and speak to them about issues that might be troubling them outside of the classroom. I am proud to have been a part of Preuss’s support network because simply being a friend in the classroom can make a huge difference in a student’s life.

Another factor in Preuss’ success rate is its rigorous College Advisory program, a class that challenges students to strengthen their academic preparedness. Through college advisory classes, Preuss sows the seed of ambition by preparing students for their goals in life as early as the eighth grade level. The class essentially helps students become marketable to the most prestigious universities through intensive “SAT-prep, college-essay help, tutoring and even character building.” University admissions directors visit these prep classes to help students understand the admissions requirements for their schools. In addition, these advisory classes provide students with essential information about potential scholarships that could fully fund their four years of college education. Since paying for college is the prime concern for low-income students and their parents, being aware of such a wide variety of financial aid is a must. Prestigious scholarships look for diversity, community service and academic potential. While college tuition often seems daunting, faculty, mentors and tutors are there to identify what prestigious scholarships and financial aid are available for students.

The Preuss educational model is an inspirational precedent for state high schools all across the nation to follow. Its practices of including a supportive network of altruistic and inspirational individuals, rigorous college preparatory coursework and informative financial aid advising all contribute to its students’ success. State governments should follow the Preuss model and invest in college preparatory programs that create exchanges between universities and high schools. Building this type of educational outreach will help to build goals, foster dreams and create a more diverse pool of highly qualified professionals.

Preuss creates highly qualified students that will be the future leaders and innovators of tomorrow. Just recently, a graduate from the Preuss school named Efrain Gonzalez received the highly coveted Chancellor’s Associates Scholarship. This scholarship, administered by UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla, provides $10,000 a year for four years to highly qualified students from low-income backgrounds. As an institution that sets a high educational standard, Preuss challenges its students to reach their highest academic potential, increasing their marketability for competitive university institutions. With the Obama administration already making major reforms in university affordability, our nation must now concentrate on promoting the achievement of high-quality postsecondary education for academically qualified, low-income students.

Photo by U.S. Army RDECOM

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