Understanding Barriers to Accessing Education for Students in Our Community

Access to education for individuals and families is a top priority at Letters Foundation. Through our collaboration with the Red Sox Scholars Program, as well as our community partnerships with One Family, Inc. and Jeremiah Program, we remain committed to supporting educational goals for our constituents.

While we recognize that tuition, aid, and student loans are significant barriers for families, we focus our grantmaking on the often overlooked costs of being a student: housing, transportation, books, supplies, and technology. These are necessary components to pursuing one’s education; however, flexible resources to fund these costs are scarce.

We asked four of our team members, with experience as first-generation students and higher education professionals, to lend their perspectives on the challenges many students face in traditional college environments today:

At face value, full tuition costs at private colleges across the U.S. are inaccessible to most families. Ironically, private colleges offer the most competitive financial aid packages and scholarship opportunities for students, but these practices aren’t widely known or publicly advertised. Beyond these financial aid practices, the culture of these institutions as white, affluent spaces remains exclusionary. As a result, students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students often “undermatch,” matriculating to colleges that aren’t able to meet their financial or academic needs. Many more don’t attend college at all.  

More pressingly, students of color and first-generation students face significant barriers in campus cultures that cater to white dominant culture and lack institutional support, with faculty and leadership that aren’t reflective of the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the student body. Students are often expected to achieve and perform under a “one-size-fits-all” framework, which overlooks the gaps in preparedness and fails to recognize cultural nuances that are critical in creating inclusive spaces.  

Many institutions tailor academic curricula and career development to those that have been prepared in privileged communities, from early education on. Students then feel excluded from participating in internships or relevant part-time employment, career development, and semester abroad opportunities that could help them gain greater access to opportunities for personal, career, and financial advancement.  

The impact of this exclusion can profoundly affect how students of color and first-generation students see themselves and envision their long term success. Moreover, these barriers impact each student’s family, community, and peers. Students who fail to achieve their goals in the face of these barriers carry that weight with them through their life. Some of our team members know this experience first-hand:

We knew nothing about what to expect from college, not even the basics like needing 120 credits to graduate, or how to select classes, or determine a major. Our families had no experience at all, and neither they nor we had any idea of how to find help, since we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. Freshman year was a completely new and overwhelming experience, both academically and socially, since we were living on our own for the first time. Things like finding work on campus, or managing personal budgets were learn-as-you-go. It saddens us that what we experienced years ago is still happening to so many students today, and unnecessarily so.

To break this cycle, it’s not enough to offer getting into college as the only pathway for success. Matriculating students should have access to resources that make college completion possible, which includes mental health and institutional support for students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds. Additionally, alternatives to traditional four-year college (community college, vocational training, internships) must be on the table at the outset.

Boston’s draw as a business venue is its skilled workforce. While a traditional college education and experience is not for everyone, education and/or training beyond high school is critical to earning a livable wage, as is the ability to adapt as technology changes the employment landscape. Failure to address the inequities in education access will create—and has created—a city of haves and have nots that are increasingly at odds with each other.

— Rita Poussaint Nethersole, former Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at UMASS Boston and one of our Letter Readers; Kurt Mueller, Peggy Patel, and Omaira Alicea, three of our Program Officers who have held positions at local universities and youth-based nonprofits in Boston.

Learn more about resources in the Commonwealth below:

Boston Bridge: The City of Boston’s Tuition-Free Community College Plan helps makes community college affordable. Through the Boston Bridge, you can attend community college and then transfer to a four-year college to finish your bachelor’s degree at no cost.

Mass Transfer: Mass Transfer helps students leverage savings toward completion of a State U or UMass bachelor’s degree, Massachusetts’ public college and universities have joined together to offer a variety of cost-saving transfer pathways to reduce the sticker price of a State U or UMass bachelor’s degree.

American Student Assistance: ASA fulfills its mission by providing tools and resources to students online, in classrooms, and through community-based organizations. ASA is interacting with teens where they are – on their mobile devices, on YouTube, Instagram and other social media platforms – to make tools available to students where they’re already spending their time so that they can direct their own journey.