NUL RADD Project
The National Urban League Wire
Published: Tue. Apr 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Updated: Wed. Apr 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Comments: 0

NUL RADD Project
Education Transforms Lives: Postsecondary Affordability Survey & Focus Groups

By: Chanelle Hardy, Esq., Hazeen Y. Ashby & Tiffany Harrison


The story of black progress in America is, above all, a story of forward movement. But this forward movement has been constantly subject to obstacles, barriers and even forceful opposition. In fact, 2013 is a historic year in which we celebrate the progress of a people 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and a mere fifty years after the March on Washington heralded an end to government-sanctioned segregation in public accommodation, at the ballot box and in public education. Since the elimination of these significant barriers, African Americans have made great strides. The National Urban Leagues’ Equality Index subjects the story of progress to an empirical analysis, and finds that, year over year, progress is jagged and slow. Yes, there are five times more black college graduates in 2013 than there were in 1963, but there is still a gap between the number of black college graduates and white college graduates. And beyond that, black college graduates are still two times as likely as their white peers to be unemployed. It is this persistent employment disparity, which remains a root impediment to the accomplishment of our National Urban League (NUL) mission to achieve social and economic parity.

For 103 years, the National Urban League has been working to help create and maintain sustainable economic empowerment and progress within urban communities—especially the black community. Our approach to attain this goal is holistic—delivering social services and programs to address education, housing, health care and employment to over 1.8 million people annually through our network of nearly 100 affiliates. Therefore, we were excited to receive a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Reimagining Aid Delivery & Design (RADD) project, as it provided us with a unique opportunity to build upon our direct services work to directly assess the attitudes, experiences and ideas of those we serve in order to understand how we can continue to best promote the attainment of a meaningful degree or certification that will allow black postsecondary students to gain economic empowerment.

Within our civil rights community, education is sacrosanct. As a community, we tout education as the great equalizer. We’ve long been taught to revere the very notion of a college education as a panacea of sorts, an economic point of arrival, and the beginning of a yellow-brick road to guaranteed prosperity. Thus, as we write this report we find ourselves resolved to ensure that black children may continue to access educational opportunities in a manner that will prove to empower them economically and thus be beneficial to them, their communities, and this country. We must find ways to combat the increasing cost of higher education and the fact that the price of college intersects with the number of new graduates—one measure is headed to dizzying heights, the other cresting and earnestly spiraling downward. This is not just a very troubling equation for only black America. The decline of the black middle class has economic significance for all of America. That which helped build the African American middle class is the same thing that built the middle class for all Americans. Programs like the GI Bill and Pell Grants were essential to making it possible for more families to send their children to college. We must ensure the viability of programs such as the Pell Grant and other sources of federal financial aid that open access to higher education for those at all socio-economic levels. For these reasons, we approached the conversation about the future of Federal Student Aid differently than some other organizations. Recognizing that college access is still relatively new to our community, we know that it is too soon for us to simply applaud the success of a push for college access and move on to other metrics. For many students and would-be students in our community, a college education represents not only the opportunity to attain a credential that will pave the way toward economic prosperity, but a means to access new networks, new people, to learn the types of interpersonal and “soft skills” that are often as critical to post-college success as coursework. Under this grant, we created and administered an informal internet survey and hosted 7 focus groups around the country—Atlanta (GA), Flint (MI), New York City (NY), Portland (OR), San Diego (CA), Savannah (GA) and West Palm Beach (FL). Combining our organization’s historic approach to postsecondary education and the responses from our internet survey and focus groups, we arrived at four overarching principles we believe will help ensure that black or other underrepresented students are afforded equitable postsecondary opportunities to attain a meaningful degree or credential that will allow them to ascend the ladder of economic mobility.

Guiding Principles

The National Urban League’s guiding principles to redesign financial aid so that it may strengthen educational attainment for African American students are:
  • We believe that federal financial aid should continue to provide equitable access to postsecondary education for every American child so that s/he may be ready for work and life.
  • We believe that providing every American child the opportunity to fully realize the “American Dream” is essential to the full economic empowerment of America.
  • We believe that federal financial aid should be utilized to grant a meaningful credential or degree to every American child. A meaningful credential or degree is one that improves the bearer’s chances of obtaining sustainable employment with benefits and a living wage, given current labor market conditions.
  • We believe that all postsecondary education institutions that receive federal financial aid should provide wrap around services to address the graduation rates of our neediest students—recognizing that neediest does not only pertain to financial resources. In this context, neediest includes those who have been historically underrepresented in higher education and thus face unique access and completion challenges. Indeed, for students of color, particularly African American and Latino students, it is often not only their financial situation, but also a lack of access to the social networks, certain types of college preparatory skills (such as study and time management skills) a supportive corps of students of shared ethnic and/or cultural background, and familiarity with the financial aid system(s) itself, that dictate need.
  • We believe that every postsecondary education institution that receives financial aid should be held accountable for the graduation rates of their students in a manner that accounts for the unique population of students that they serve.

Click here to read the full NUL RADD Project.
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