Breakthrough: The Program that Gets Low Income Kids to College

One of the challenges that students have today, which is not a lot different than what I faced, is the problem of budgets being cut in education.  I grew up in a very enlightened border town that was able to allow Mexican students to go to school.  


Those sort of enlightenments don’t seem to exist as much anymore.  So there’s a lot more challenge involved in trying to help students get through school.  So speaking in Texas, for example, although I think it’s true around the country, we have a large number of students in the Latino community that are at risk.  

What that means is that they’re at risk of not being able to finish high school, much less going to college.  So there are programs to try to help them out.  There’s an organization called Breakthrough which is, in my view, one of the best organizations I’ve ever seen in trying to address the challenge of taking at risk students and making sure they stay in school. 

And their approach is kind of somewhat simple but pretty effective.  They grab kids right after fourth grade.  So when a kid finishes fourth grade they try to select the kids that they think have the potential to be able to really stick through the rigors and challenge of going through school and eventually going to college.  Then they explain to the child what the program is, what they want them to do.  Then they explain to the parents what the program is. 

And the child and the parents actually have to sign a contract.  And this is an interesting contract because what it means is the student commits to it from that day forward. He has to follow the directions and guidance that Breakthrough provides.  For example, some of the things that are required is that the student has to attend classes every Saturday from then on.  And that’s a pretty strong commitment when you really think about it.  You’re a child and your parents, in many cases some parents actually rely on these students to work on weekends at a fast food place or something like that.  So it’s really a very, very difficult commitment for them to make. But when they do, they are committed and Breakthrough helps them.

And what Breakthrough does is assigns a sponsor to each student.  Then they stay with them, they help them, they get to know the teachers.  They work with them all the way through and the goal is to stay with them until they finish college.  To give an example of how effective it is is the graduation rate in Texas for Latinos in general is frankly only something like 50 percent.  I mean half of the kids make it through high school, the other half don’t.  And of the half that make it through high school only half of them actually attempt to go to college.  So you’ve got a very small percentage of the population really trying to get educated.  Compare that to Breakthrough students - the kids that have signed this contract. They have a 95 percent plus completion rate in high school and 95 percent of those who complete high school actually attend college.

And so it kind of tells you that this particular program is immensely effective in really keeping these kids in school and then getting them through the process of getting to college.  You know, the process of getting into college may sound simple to those of us who have done it but today it’s actually quite complicated. 

I’ve been watching these kids when they get to be seniors in high school.  The way they have to fill out those applications and the paperwork they have to go through to be able to get financial aid and to do all those things can be quite daunting.  As a matter of fact, I don’t remember doing anything like that when I went to school.  And these kids are having to do hours, literally hours and hours of test taking, filling out forms and that can be intimidating.  So this Breakthrough organization really holds their hand and stays with them and gets them through and I’m very proud to be associated with it. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy fo Shutterstock

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