Part Two: The Graduation Gap
By Stephanie Summers
[The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book on opportunity.]
“If everyone on campus gave me a dollar, I could stay here.”
On my second day at college, I opened my email, saw this subject line, and rolled my eyes before hitting delete.
That night at a Bible study, I prayed alongside my classmates when someone shared a prayer request about the student who needed $1,500 by the following day in order to stay on campus.
The next day, I met her. We were in a class together and talked at a break. She shared with me that her single father had not sent in a check, and that he didn’t have the money. She didn’t either. Campus security officers had come to her door and told her in front of her roommate that they would come back and forcibly evict her in 24 hours if she didn’t pay.
“Hardly anyone responded to my email,” she said. “But last night, a student showed up and gave me all the money I needed.”
It was the same student who brought the prayer request to our Bible study the night before.
Human dignity. It’s a concept that seems foreign to many of us, even those of us who profess that all lives have equal value because every human is created in God’s image.
Scripture is full of admonitions to affirm the worth of every human. Yet like my own indifference, we often fail to see the everyday humiliation of those around us.
On college campuses, the graduation gap is a stark example of the degradation of human dignity.
The degradation of dignity occurs when students who have worked hard to attend college begin to discover that they can’t overcome what are seemingly simple obstacles for someone else, like purchasing extra course materials or missing the course registration deadline.
Thankfully these seemingly simple obstacles are also the ones that different parts of the community are best equipped to address. That’s why closing the graduation gap is a task of human dignity and shared responsibility.
Everyone has a role to play. Mentors must help low-income students talk through challenges as they experience them, offering wise counsel and assistance that empowers. Local church congregations must come alongside low-income students and provide both spiritual and practical care, like a place to store belongings over the summer because it is expensive to take them home and back again.
And perhaps most obviously, colleges and their students have a role to play in closing the graduation gap. As I discovered, learning the life stories of one’s classmates is a key first step. In addition to specific campus programs to help close the gap, research from Stanford University has shown that low-income students in classes where professors speak words affirming dignity have a significantly increased chance of success over students who do not hear these words from their instructors.
College students come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Many have successfully overcome obstacles to make it to college in the first place, but many have not had the opportunity to learn or acquire the skills and resources necessary to help ensure they graduate. Closing the graduation gap will affirm this diversity and provide opportunity in ways that uphold human dignity.