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The 10 Year Promise of College Track

by Katie Hooper
May 31, 2019

Katie Hooper, Director of Communications at College Track interviews Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track, and Omar Butler, Executive Director of College Track Northern California.

The conversation has been condensed by frank news.

Katie Hooper: The first is easy. Introduce yourselves, your role with College Track, and how you got into this line of work.

Omar Butler: I knew you were going to throw it to me first. I knew it. I am the regional executive director of College Track, Northern California. I would like to think I got into this work purposely and intentionally, but I think it was more organic. My story is very similar to the students we serve. As I entered into a career at the college, it became a natural fit for me. It was instinctual to want to support students, to want to work in a youth development setting. Given my history and experience, I thought it would lend itself well to the work College Track was doing around getting students to and through college.

KH: Elissa?

Elissa Salas: I joined College Track eight years ago as a site director, and now I'm the CEO. I got into this work as a burnt out educator, having worked in K-12 as a teacher and principal, and also at the district level. I found myself feeling like I was perpetuating the systems of inequity that I sought out to change as a teacher. When I found College Track, which had a much more comprehensive view of how to educate young people, with college as the vehicle for life outcomes and choices, I fell in love with the mission.

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KH: What are we dealing with today that is fundamentally different from 10, 20, 30 years ago?

ES: I'd like to offer that back in 1997, when College Track was founded, I was also a young person. First one in my family to go to college, trying to understand and navigate what college affordability was. Our oldest alumni are only one year younger than I am. Based on my own experience, and what I know to be true about our students and our earlier alumni that have gone through the program, some things are still true. California has some of the best higher ed funding in the entire country, that is still true, and it was true back then, with both Cal Grant A and Cal Grant B. However, there's huge discrepancies across regions. What we didn't have back then was the California Dream Act, nor was there any notion of DACA. Back then, students who were undocumented were paying school as an international student. That's one thing that's different.

My assumption is that tuition was much cheaper relative to the cost of living in general, back in '97. What I think is particularly interesting, is the federal program has not changed to keep up with the cost of living.

KH: How does the return on investment of a bachelor's degree play into the calculus of what an affordable college is? From our experience at College Track, how are we guiding our students to what we deem is an affordable college? What's that definition we've come to as an organization?

ES: For me it's the combination of average debt with average first salary. That's how I think about ROI. When we broadly are talking about a bachelor's degree, from the alumni that we survey, we make sure our students are graduating from college able to get a job six months out of college, that their average first-time salaries are on par with the national average for bachelor's degree holders, which is higher than a high school diploma or even a certificate. Generally, those themes have been true for our students who are graduating from college. That's the differentiation between the bachelor's degree, a high school diploma, or community college.

It's also important that students are really discerning when they're choosing between what seems to be two relatively similar options, in terms of post-grad salaries, but have perhaps radically different levels of investment up front. That's why we use the federal higher ed report card, because what students need to understand is that while you might want to go to a super brand-name school that doesn't necessarily have a high endowment, you're going to pay for that degree. And we should be paying for them, but if you're going to end up taking 50 thousand dollars to graduate from that college and your average starting salary is 40 thousand or 50 thousand, it doesn't entirely seem to be worth it. We want students to be able to weigh those options. If you're going to be an engineer, or you have every intention of being a lawyer or a doctor, where you're going to have an average salary that's far higher, then it might make sense to go to a school where you can take on more debt. But if your career aspirations are aligned to being a teacher, and you're weighing between an option where you're going to have to take out a significant amount of loans versus an option that is relatively affordable, we want students to be able to make that active choice.

KH: Right.

OB: I think that's spot-on. I also wonder, how do we create opportunities for students to think about it much more thoughtfully. When we talk to our students and we understand the pursuit, or why they are thinking about certain colleges, we have to do a better job of helping students be selective, better consumers. This is an investment, and it's important. It will be one of the largest investments they ever make in life. And so, "My friend is going there, so I want to go there," shouldn't be a driving force in terms of why.

I think part of that conversation is also to the point you just mentioned in the fit around career and return on investment from that standpoint. I talk to students who articulate that they want to be teachers, or they want to be educators. And I find myself asking them, "Okay, well, why do you want to go to a college outside of California if you want to be a teacher in California? Why do you want to go to a small liberal arts HBCU in Alabama to get a degree in education or sociology, if your intention is to come back here?" It's not to discourage it, but it's to help them be more thoughtful in their decisions. Part of the conversation around affordability is, "What are your future aspirations?" Because I think all those things are connected to each other, and as we think about career fluency, career guidance, fit around those type of things, in addition to fit around all the other metrics we use we encourage students to think about as they're reflecting and evaluating college choices, I think that's important as well.

College is a step towards a journey, not the end of the journey, and so helping students understand that piece and taking it into context around what it's like to graduate with 60 thousand dollars in debt, what will that mean for you and your future? That's a hard lesson some of our students have learned. But I think we're making a lot of inroads. Saturday I'm going to a graduation at Mills for our student who was choosing between Howard and Mills. At Howard, she probably would've graduated with 50-60 thousand dollars worth of debt easily. She's graduating from Mills debt-free. I want to see more of those stories, because to graduate from a great university with literally no debt, puts you on a trajectory for a lot of things that may not have been available had you graduated from another great university with tremendous debt.

KH: Does that also come with a culture shift? We continue to stress that our students go to what we call at College Track "best-fit schools" that are affordable, that help them graduate in four to six years, that help them graduate without an enormous amount of debt. Parents want their kids to go to the most elite institutions, but the name brand may not be the best institution for that student, regardless of financial aid needs.

ES: For me, I think the culture shift is first and foremost an understanding. The bachelor's degree is a tool that can set me up, or not set me up so well for the rest of my life. Particularly in K-12, we've missed that boat a little bit, because that wasn't necessarily our initial mission.

The whole reason we want kids to get this degree is because it is currency for choices for the rest of their life.

To evaluate the quality of that choice, we have to understand what other liabilities come with that. I feel like that's where the first culture shift needs to happen.

What are some of the hidden costs we're not thinking about, that financial aid and scholarships don't cover?

OB: In California, we have the benefit of having great public institutions that attract people from all over the world and definitely provide our students with an opportunity to look towards, as destinations. But when we think outside of California, things like gear that the students need in the winter. Growing up in California, you take for granted that a coat is year-round. That is a cost we don't really account for. When I was in school, it became less and less affordable to travel between California and the South. And so the impact of being able to purchase airline tickets, and really having to decide, "Okay, do I go home for Thanksgiving or do I go home for Christmas, or Spring Break? I can't go home for all of those things."

Those are some of the immediate things that come to mind, but some of the incidental needs our students experience, being able to call home to get 50 dollars or 75 dollars, to just cover the cost of something that's immediate. I'm not even talking about living life as a college student, but I'm talking about immediate needs of personal care and things like that, that I think really, after experiencing so many of those challenges, it becomes emotionally draining for students to have to confront those things on a month-to-month basis and really recognize that there are some things that are not available to them, that are available to a lot of their peers. And so I think those type of things come to mind that are very connected to the sense of belonging and a sense of connection to campus that sometimes we don't account for and understand, and institutions don't always account for.

OB: There are some great initiatives; I learned about an initiative at Georgetown where they actually account for those type of things and try to do it in a way that doesn't ostracize or prop up the students as needy, but really creates a space where students can access those things without the specter of their income. There are definitely some initiatives and institutions doing the work to keep first-gen low-income students engaged and flourishing in their institutions.

ES: Yeah, I would add again, just to stress the point earlier about community college, is that most four-year colleges, if you're a residential student, actually capture the cost of attendance quite well. They make sure that you have medical care through the college, if you don't already have it through your family. Living expenses are included. But again, community college students, the cost of attendance assumes that a portion of your cost of attendance is subsidized by your family. I just want to stress that point again.

The second piece that I'd like to add is the extracurricular activities that are really there to help maximize and further your degree. When I think about internships in the summer, for example, when students aren't perhaps living at their college, but they want to be able to do some type of internship, but it's not necessarily a paid internship. Or transportation, housing, those types of things. The other thing that comes to mind for me that I've seen with some of our students, and I had a personal experience with myself, is being able to study abroad. Oftentimes, if you're going to a country that is higher cost of living, or you're going to be staying on campus when you normally live on campus, that becomes out of reach.

KH: What are the biggest and boldest ideas about making college more "affordable?" There are some free college initiatives going on in Tennessee, and my home state of New York, and then there's those that are being floated nationally by presidential candidates and elected officials. We don't have to get into the weeds on each specific one, but I'm curious what your thoughts are on the notion of free college. How we can move the national conversation forward in a way that is feasible and brings merit back into the system?

ES: I have a position on this, in that many free college initiatives focus specifically on tuition, and they typically focus on open-access institutions, so a community college or a lower-tier public university, and again, I want to stress that college tuition is not the only expense. It's about half of the expense for a young person to be able to go through. And for families that are unable to subsidize the living expenses, it's actually not that helpful.

What I might also offer, particularly the states that you have offered up, is that with the higher ed funding that they have available to their constituents, many of those states already have a free college tuition through the higher ed system that they have now. From my point of view, I think this advantages middle-class families more than any other family. Not to say that that's a bad thing; middle-class families need help too.

What I'm concerned about with free college tuition policies is that it gives us this false sense of security that we've solved the problem, when in fact the systemic things that are preventing low-income first-gen students from graduating, particularly those students that don't have the competitive GPA, are not solved.

That's my first reaction to that.

OB: I think we heard from Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College. What he's doing there is meeting a specific kind of need, connecting work with college and marrying those two things so that students experience what is a huge factor to persistence, really making it meaningful and resonating with them and pointing to the why, you know? Using the college experience as a pipeline and pathway to career success is an example and model of how some institutions can support their students, attract a certain demographic of students, and ensure the success of a demographic of students that have not experienced a lot of success in traditional post-secondary institutions. I look at that and it gives me a sense of some things that other post- secondary institutions can do. It gives me a sense of what high schools and college completion programs can do as well. Create more alignment between the learning and making it.

Creating opportunities that take that learning and put it into practice in a thoughtful and meaningful and immediate way.

ES: Some districts are offering up a 13th year of education. Basically using a super-senior year in K-12 to pay for the first year of college. So you're using K-12 money to fund your first year of college.

Another one on work that I think is interesting are some hybrid colleges – colleges that are making it much easier to work and go to college. They’re more self-paced, so that if you're a student that can do all the work in a couple semesters, it's not necessarily bound to seat time, but it's bound to products. I think that's particularly interesting.

The third is income-sharing agreements. These are not necessarily at scale, and I think there's good reason to be wary of them, but I think there's also good reason to think about offering up a different way of financing college. The assumption that a proportion of your salary for some extended amount of time, would be post-graduate and would be variable, but then after ten years, you're done.

Right. It's like a 401K.

ES: It is. And moreover you're paying different rates based on what you believe the degree is going to be able to actually earn. I think it's interesting, and it's also funded by school endowments themselves, not necessarily federal funding.

Let's go back to the question around the landscape and how it's changed.

OB: I think College Track is very forward thinking. We've started the conversation early on about affordability, about best fit, about return on investment. I walk into spaces with context that may be more thought out than some of my peers. When I think what's missing, I think about a broader conversation around the entire community thinking about the impact of debt on someone who may be graduating from college and the barriers that could create for those students.

I'm someone who walked through the process without the full context and full picture. I just signed loan documents, and as long as I was able to register, I was good, right?

No one talked to me about the implications of that. No one talked to me about financial literacy and financial awareness in the broader context. I may have made different decisions. I still would have pursued a four-year school, but it might have challenged me to think about which school I picked.

ES: What's also important is that the eligibility for Pell has stayed the same, which in spirit is fine, in terms of 200% of poverty, but when you look at many urban centers that have rapidly gentrified, the Bay Area is probably one of the highest, similar to the D.C. region, similar to L.A... there are many students that are over that marker, but families that are absolutely struggling to be able to live, pay their day-to-day living expenses. To be able to think about actually affording college is quite a leap.

Having an evaluation of understanding, "How does our federal funding actually change over time?" is particularly important for Pell, but moreover, "How do we then control for different markets where the cost of living is so much higher?"

KH: Particularly because the middle class has been so thinned.

ES: That's exactly right.

KH: The gap between the least and the most is so much greater than it's ever been, and that capping at a certain amount is not helping a lot of the communities we serve.

ES: Yeah. That's exactly right. The other thing that's changed quite a bit over time is: community college has been seen as an affordable option, but our students are unable to tap into the cost of living expenses. It turns out our policies in this country have the least amount of money for the most vulnerable students, and when you're in places that are very expensive, the cost of living is half of the cost of attendance. Tuition is really just half the battle.

KH: The way that we think about college today is so tied to tuition. Which is a good thing, because it's grounded in a reality that tuition is astronomical, and people have jokes about their loan repayment. You joked about that.

ES: I just paid my loans off.

KH: You finished. And that's undeniably a huge part of this. But there's also other pieces of the return on investment for college. In the Bay Area, which is a very wealthy area, but also has wealth discrepancies that are particularly high, how do we level this?

OB: There would be some suggestion, which I tend to disagree with, that a college degree isn't necessary in this economy, and that most of the companies, particular tech companies always used as the standard, don't require a college degree. I would actually argue differently. I think there are positions you can get in those companies that don't require a degree, but when we think about long-term growth and long-term earnings potential, a college degree sets you on a pathway early on in your career to be able to access opportunities and positions that do put you on that trajectory. It's so acute here in the Bay Area that, in order to be able to afford to live here, you need to be on that pathway and that trajectory pretty early on. We have to help students, and parents, and families, and society in general, understand why it is extremely valuable. Probably more so for our students who are coming from an environment and context where they don't have access to resources and capital which would allow them to leverage a parent's equity in their home to buy a home themselves.

When we think about return on investment, we have to understand the long- term benefits, both from a financial standpoint but also an opportunity standpoint, which are linked together. When we deny that, we're denying opportunity, and we're continuing this caste system, if you will, where our students reach a glass ceiling and reach a barrier that they aren't able to break through because college degrees are a sense of sorting as well. As we think about the return on investment, we have to help our students understand the long-term benefits and values and what those opportunities will mean for them in the long run. And that's not just 20 or 10 years down the line; that's five, three, soon after they enter into the workforce.

KH: You guys have been wonderful. Thank you so much.