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A St. Louis Answer To Low College Enrollment

Field of students at a graduation
j.o.h.n. walker | Flickr

As a junior in high school, Ayont Young figured she’d go to Missouri State University to study nursing. It was the only college she’d looked at and she was sure she could get in. Then, she signed up for College Summit’s summer Peer Leader program.

College Summit is a local answer to the lack of academic support and resources in some communities nationwide. Program leaders encourage their students to reach higher and work harder – while giving them the support they need to do so.

In Young’s case, this meant a College Summit counselor encouraged her to apply to higher ranked nursing programs after looking at her grades, story, and community involvement. She did, and in the fall Young will be attending the University of Pennsylvania, one of the top nursing programs in the country, debt free due to a combination of scholarships and other financial aid programs.

The Programs

College Summit works with students in St. Louis Public Schools, the Normandy School District and Confluence Charter Schools. All students take a credit bearing course that emphasizes having a post-graduation plan and encourages students to work toward a four-year university. They help students navigate the many hurdles to applying for and enrolling in college, and help them navigate the financial cost of higher education.

College Summit also runs a summer program for incoming seniors to encourage them to be peer-leaders to their class-mates. “The most influential person in a 17 year-old’s life is another 17 year-old,” said Leslie Gill, the executive director of College Summit in Missouri. “We believe in developing young leaders and creating leadership opportunities for our Peer Leaders to mentor their peers and make sure that their peers aren’t just getting to college, but getting through college.”

Young said that she sees students choosing colleges that they are sure they will be accepted to but don’t fit their potential. “I feel like you should challenge yourself,” said Young. “I wanted to push the kids in my class to do better than what they would settle for and do better than what is expected of them.”

Part of the problem isn’t just a lack of familiarity with the college application process, but that students often aren’t challenged enough in high school to arrive at college prepared. Young pointed to a lack of AP classes in her high school and a number of students who drop out because the work isn’t challenging enough. 

InspireSTL is another organization looking at the same problem. “InspireSTL was founded because we realized that there were these really bright middle school students who had unlimited potential and really powerful goals and ambitions for themselves, but their trajectory was not aligned to being college going and college prepared,” said Charli Cooksey, the organization’s executive director who founded it  along with three other Teach For America members.

InspireSTL’s answer is to work with schools to identify the most promising incoming 7th graders and help those students attend college preparatory schools in the area. “What students need is to excel in really rigorous environments that prepare them to not only attend college, but complete college” said Cooksey.

What is at stake if this doesn’t change?

Both Cooksey and Gill see wide-reaching implications for communities that send more students to college. Gill says a community where more students finish college is a stronger, safer, more economically diverse community.

“What’s at stake for the scholars that we serve is … a lifetime of a lack of access for these things that they deserve … [which] not only allows the cycle of poverty to persist, but it also just limits their opportunity to what they see in the world … and how they see themselves in the world,” said Cooksey. “It’s about what’s at stake when students are not prepared to be the next generation of leaders … What are we willing to sacrifice if we don’t educate these students? I think there’s a lot on the line in every arena you can think of.” 

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer with assistance from Amanda Honigfort. It is hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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