I did not initially intend on writing an open letter, but somehow I felt that the words were better served this way. This is by no means an attack on my educational background or experiences as I wouldn’t be the man I am today without them. It’s a conversation starter and a conversation that I hope will never stop.
Dear Governor O’Malley:
I would like to begin by thanking you for your leadership of Maryland and your dedication in ensuring that our great state leads the nation when it comes to education. I am a product of a Maryland public school and attended a Maryland institution, Salisbury, for both my undergraduate and MBA degrees.
When people hear the term “college readiness,” testing is the first thing that comes to mind. It certainly is for me. But, what if we were to contemplate an equation that makes students “ready” for college instead? Students must be academically ready, yes. But they must also be financially literate and aware, understanding the financial aid process, including how both public and private loans work. They must be knowledgeable of the college admissions process, aware of deadlines and the impact of their extracurriculars, test scores, and volunteer activities. Teachers are responsible for preparing students by placing them in the ‘right’ mindset for pursuing their dreams through education. Guidance counselors are responsible for preparing students for the rigor of the admissions process by getting to know each student and their specific circumstances and needs.
Maryland is lucky to have some of the most affluent communities in the nation. However, we also have many communities living near or below poverty. Because of this, our public schools vary greatly in quality of services and efforts to aid in college readiness. My high school, North Dorchester, had approximately 600 students at the time of my graduation in 2005. I cannot recollect a single conversation with my guidance counselor regarding college—not even the national average, 38 minutes. With the national student-to-counselor ratio hovering at 476:1, I am not surprised. I’m thankful that my family understood the process and had the resources to send me to college. But, seven years later, I look back on those individuals who had so much talent and promise who never attended a single college class. It’s not because they weren’t academically prepared. It’s because they didn’t understand the process.
There were only 16 FAFSA applications submitted from North Dorchester last year, of which only 13 were complete. That’s representative of less than 10% of the class. I realize that Dorchester falls almost last in education for the state, but it is safe to say that, for one of the most important documents in beginning the post-secondary education journey, less than 10% is unacceptable, especially for a county with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the state. At Cambridge South Dorchester, only 19 were completed. Of ALL of the graduating seniors in the county, only 32 FAFSA forms were correctly completed. Only 32 students from over 400 were eligible for federal financial aid as a result. The number one barrier to higher education is cost.
Every opportunity that passes to share information on the admissions process with high school students does them a disservice and also a disservice to our communities. The college completion gap cannot go unnoticed. We must begin to find better solutions that supplement the imposed inability of our guidance counselors to fulfill their obligation in providing students with both correct and useful information regarding post-secondary education. We must begin to provide greater support for those nonprofits and organizations already attempting to create this change. Most of all, we need to create a culture of possibility for students who would benefit immensely from higher education.
If I had to sum up why I’m proud to live in Maryland in one word, it would be opportunity. Everyone should have it.
Thank you for your time,
Alex M. Williams