The Bronze Bullet

As I’ve explored the nonprofit landscape of the Bay Area, one fact has become crystal clear – everything is connected. Systemic inequality, homelessness, malnutrition, climate change, and civil injustice are not isolated issues; they are compounding symptoms.

Many of the world’s brightest minds – nonprofit leaders, university professors, social entrepreneurs, politicians, philanthropists, etc. - have searched tirelessly for an instant, comprehensive fix to our web of problems and have come up short. There simply isn’t a silver bullet. But there is a next best thing – a bronze bullet – and it’s been in our back pocket the whole time.

Our bronze bullet is increasing access to education. Progress may be gradual, but that single action is capable of improving our society across the board by leaps and bounds.

Education is inextricably tied to social mobility and is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. In 2018, 63% of U.S. jobs are projected to require some higher education, yet today only 40% of California’s adults hold associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. With numbers like that, college seems like an obvious choice. So why don’t low-income students choose to attend college? It’s simple - college has a reputation of being prohibitively expensive. That’s not without reason. If student debt isn’t managed carefully, it can be crippling. Both our government and our academic institutions have recognized this and set aside sizable grants and scholarships for low-income and first generation families, but the current financial aid system is so complicated that it makes our tax code look straightforward. Because of this, many students forego college believing that it is out of reach. This is where incredible nonprofits like uAspire step in.

uAspire works to ensure low- and moderate-income young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to – and through – a postsecondary education. The real magic of the program lies in uAspire’s unique approach. They emphasize data driven results, working within existing systems and meeting high school students where they are.

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Students learn about the financial aid process from College Affordability Advisors, who are placed inside of public schools for easy access. Advisors help students navigate the murky waters of financial aid, personalizing steps for each student based on family circumstances and college goals. Students receive help filling out financial aid forms on time and are introduced to available scholarship options. In order to stay in touch and remind students about key deadlines, Advisors send text follow ups to their students. The personal attention and follow through set uAspire apart. They offer direct counseling services to thousands of students in school systems in Massachusetts (Boston, Springfield, Lawrence and Fall River) and the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward). And through their training partnerships in more than 27 other states they reach thousands more by partnering with local, regional and national non-profits, school districts, and charter management organizations.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Carmen, one of uAspire’s Advisors, and to sit in on a couple of her student sessions. If you ever want to be humbled in a hurry, talk to Carmen. How anyone can keep so many different types of grants and their deadlines straight is beyond me. Within minutes, I was adrift in a sea of jargon and acronyms, but Carmen exercised remarkable patience and explained the ins and outs of the Pell Grant, Cal Grant, CSS, FAFSA, CADAA, etc. Over the course of an hour, I saw her help students with items as small as correcting the spelling of “San Diego” on an application to as big as selecting schools based on financial viability. She walked students through the importance of having a financial safety school, like Cal State San Francisco and mapped out the expected cost of attendance. Carmen and the rest of the uAspire team have become the students’ bridge to a promising tomorrow.

That may sound cheesy, but it’s true and the results speak for themselves. uAspire’s advisees are more likely to enroll in college the fall after high school. In the fall of 2016, 67% of uAspire advisees started college compared to 54% of a demographically comparable group of students. What's more, 79% of uAspire advisees re-enroll for a second year of college compared to 73% of their peers. Since 1985, uAspire, has grown from a small organization serving 1,000 young people in Boston to a national, award-winning, organization reaching 27 states and 350,000 students nationwide each year.

In Carmen’s sessions, I saw students’ faces light up as they realized their dreams of attending college weren’t just attainable, they were within grabbing distance. If a student is eligible for the full amount of the Cal Grant and the Pell Grant, they can more than cover the cost of tuition for a Cal State without taking on any loans. That fact should be hung on banners at every street corner. Students for every family, regardless of social class, should grow up knowing that college is a viable option.

uAspire is championing access to higher education and guiding students towards benefits that have been hidden in plain sight for far too long. uAspire is the bronze bullet that just might get our country back on its feet.

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To learn more about uAspire and the incredible work they are doing in the Bay Area, click here. If you have 5 minutes, I also highly recommend you watch this video on the impact of their work.