Perhaps you’ve heard some colleges offer not only free tuition, but free room and board, to smart but low income students?

Even if a full tuition offer isn’t available, partial scholarship packages can limit a family’s out of pocket expenses to the same or perhaps less than other school choices. I’ve heard this from college experts, and it’s something my daughter noticed when she was in the college search process.

National Public Radio has a report on this theme today. It’s already aired in rotation on Michigan Radio this morning, and can be found on line.

The headline is: Elite Colleges Struggle to Recruit Smart Low-Income Kids.

Here’s the problem: Despite the lavish scholarship offers, the actual numbers of low-income students at elite colleges have not risen in significant numbers.

One challenge is that colleges don’t know how to recruit and find students who are not at top-ranked public schools. The correlating factor is that bright high school students who are scattered across the country might not have examples among their peers or encouragement among mentors to know where to look or how to expand their possibilities.

A snippet:

“Imagine a student who is the only student who is a likely candidate for a place like Harvard or Stanford or University of Chicago — and he’s not just the only student in his or her high school, but he’s the only student that that high school has graduated like that in, say, three or four years,” economist Caroline Hoxby says.

My family noticed a gap in social expectations, although not to as great of an extent, when my daughter went to college. We did not know this detail at the time, but she is the first Monroe High School student to have attended and graduated from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

I don’t know why MHS girls haven’t been interested in that school. There have been long been students from St. Mary Catholic Central across town attending that college, and SMC has long been one of the schools participating in the College Night fair at Monroe County Community College that draws hundreds of students and parents from across the region.

In fact, the local college fair is how my daughter learned about SMC. The more she looked into it, the more she liked it. She not only was accepted, but she was awarded a very good, four-year partial scholarship package.

I told my daughter the scholarship package meant she had to graduate in four years, because there was no way we could afford year five of tuition and expenses at SMC. Given the amount of student loans that were needed to fill the gap after those and other scholarships, grants and work study were added in, my prediction was correct.

She stayed on the four-year plan, and maintained her scholarship eligibility along the way.

The detail we did know during the high school years was that my daughter was choosing a very different path to education than what is considered conventional wisdom in Monroe County, Mich.

I’ve referenced the numbers about first-generation students in previous discussions about college, but here they are:

The U.S. Census reports that 28 percent of Monroe County residents age 25 and older have at least a two-year degree. This is much lower than even the state or national average of 35 percent. To be fair, one did not need education beyond a high school diploma a generation or two ago in order to get a good paying job in southeast Michigan.

These days, 60 percent of Monroe County’s high school students are reported to be starting college classes or technical school. The dropout rate is pretty high and fairly fast, and that’s another topic I’ve talked about. The point I’m making this morning is on how many first-generation college students are in the community – and 28 percent to 60 percent is a huge generation gap.

Now while I don’t have the statistics to back up these details, I can tell you what I’ve heard via anecdotes:

  • Monroe-area parents do not like their children to live far away from home, even for college. I lost track of how many people were shocked to learn my undergrad daughter was “so far away!” when it was only a three-hour drive.
  • Commuter student status is the norm in the Monroe area. One reason is that Monroe County Community College has a huge appeal because of the tuition discount for Monroe County residents. But it’s also true that a transfer plan from community college to university (also known as “2+2″) is seen as a sensible choice among area families — to the point that multiple people asked why I didn’t send my daughter to MCCC before she went to a four-year school.
  • First generation students and families have little idea of how the college financial aid and scholarship process works. The college fairs and financial aid presentations at the area schools do provide good information. I’ve also talked about college topics since the earliest days of this blog, and it is a recurring theme in my newspaper columns. But there is a lack of consistency and truly helpful information from other directions. One publicity pitch I received some time back asked me to write about scholarship searches long after the deadlines had passed for the scholarships local students really do earn.

One more piece of this puzzle is that even a four-year degree from a well-respected school is no guarantee of a job afterward.

Yes, there are studies indicating a college degree will make one more marketable and likely to find work. But the statistics, headlines and stories I’ve heard is that today’s young adults face huge challenges in finding any job, much less in the fields in which they were studying. That’s a huge problem when Michigan college students are graduating with $26,000 in student debt after their other financial resources are tapped out.

A direct connection of college studies to a relevant job needs to happen far more often for the first-generation families to consider a college degree as having practical value and worth the investment of time, money and effort.

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