Opening the doors to college to those who need it most

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Op-Ed published in the Tampa Bay Times on April 15, 2022

​​​​​​​Black students have been chronically underserved in Florida for generations and are underrepresented at the state’s colleges and universities. This problem has only grown worse during the past two years.

Before the pandemic hit, less than half of Black high school students attended college after graduating. Overall, 29 percent of Black Floridians, ages 25 to 64, hold a two-year or four-year degree. That’s 11 points lower than white Floridians in the same age group.

This attainment gap can result in diminished opportunities for Black Floridians and exclude many from well-paying jobs that would improve their individual financial prospects and strengthen Florida’s economy.

As part of Helios Education Foundation’s commitment to creating opportunities for Floridians to succeed in college, we are focused on meeting the needs of Black students in the Tampa Bay region, and in South and Central Florida.

When we surveyed college applicants last summer, we found that Black students are encountering significant barriers to college that are unrelated to their studies, such as basic needs insecurity and a lack of information about financial aid options. Among Black applicants, too many are not receiving the non-academic supports they need to make college a reality.

Even though in-state tuition is reasonable compared to private schools and financial aid is readily available, 60 percent of the Black applicants surveyed were worried or stressed about paying for college, and only 30 percent of them believed they could afford to attend a Florida state college.

But even if they receive financial aid, many Black students face bigger money worries. One in 10 say they are the main source of financial support for their families, and an additional 14 percent say they will need to cover half of their family’s bills. One-quarter of Black applicants reported that they face food insecurity and another 18 percent struggled to pay for adequate housing.

Here’s the bottom line: Florida will only increase Black college participation with a coordinated effort between high schools, state colleges, educators, and social service agencies. The most important tasks are to:

  • Hire full-time facilitators or liaison officers to work on campuses to connect students with public benefits programs, including federal food benefits and local rental assistance.
  • Provide targeted coaching, on campuses and community-based organizations, to engage with and support students who are juggling substantial family obligations along with college and work.
  • Greatly expand current efforts to provide students with information about financial aid available to them and provide individual counseling to help them complete applications for federal financial aid.
  • Advocate for additional emergency financial aid from state and federal lawmakers when the current aid expires later this year.

Hillsborough Community College is working daily to change this paradigm. Our Hope Scholars program establishes cohorts of minority male students who are paired with a mentor and have planned activities and academic support, and our annual Black, Brown and College Bound Summit provides a gateway to entry for students to enrollment and success as students. We also are leading a national conversation for educators on the unique barriers affecting persistence and graduation for our Black and Latino males.

It’s time to unite across Florida to address this problem. The problem is bigger than education — and creating a solution will help all Floridians.