Graduate! Philadelphia Project Reflections

October 19, 2011

By Lauren Hansen-Flaschen, MPA'12

This summer I had the distinguished opportunity to work with Graduate! Philadelphia staff and associates to investigate the financial roadblocks facing “comebackers,” adults who re-enroll in college programs to complete a degree.

I conducted nearly twenty interviews with G!P advisors and staff, financial aid officers and representatives from G!P’s partner colleges, experts in personal finance, the Philadelphia officer from PHEAA, and nine G!P comebackers. These interviews, coupled with extensive—albeit far from exhaustive—outside research have brought to light personal and technical challenges relating to college funding that low-income adults must navigate and overcome when re-enrolling in college.

Under Hadass Sheffer and Kimberly Stephens’ direction, I focused more heavily on the personal stories of the interviewees to extract my findings than on the outside research.  While there is a massive body of studies and articles dedicated to college retention rates and adults in higher education, it is still difficult to decipher the underlying causes and consequences of the main financial issues that adults over 25 encounter.  Therefore, who better to learn from about these roadblocks, than those who dealing with them on the ground-level every day?

The interviews revealed the overwhelming complexity of securing and maintaining funding to complete a college program, as well as the less talked-about personal issues that stymie comebackers from making it through, or that prevent potential comebackers from even starting the process.

For those who struggle to make ends meet, student financial aid can be a blessing of opportunity as well as a curse of looming debt. Financial situations from the past can hobble a student’s efforts to move out of dead-end situations.  Balancing life, work, family obligations, and college classes is nerve-wracking to the say least. There are countless deadlines that must be known and met in order to receive loans and grants, gain admittance into the college program, add and drop courses without being penalized financially, and to maintain eligibility for scholarships.

Perhaps most daunting, comebackers must cultivate an ironclad belief in themselves that can make it through this time and finally attain their degree. For some, this last point means revisiting the reasons why they did not complete college the first time around, facing concerns of being the oldest student in their classes, addressing perceived weaknesses in certain academic subjects or in using technology, and managing personal hardships as they attend college.

There are no sure-fire solutions to all of these challenges. And yet, over 100 Graduate! Philadelphia comebackers have triumphed over these obstacles and successfully attained their college degree.  Of course, the dedication and hard work of the Graduate! Philadelphia staff has played a huge role in this success. G!P advisors Laticia Booker, Harold McIlwain, and Sarah Byker-James seem to go above and beyond their officials duties to provide all possible support to their clients. This often includes being a friend and a cheerleader on top of being an expert on how to undertake the process of returning to school, a personal guide through the FAFSA application, and a beacon of critical information on academic programs, deadlines, and scholarships.

The nine interviews I conducted with G!P comebackers provided invaluable insight into how one can succeed when dealing with these challenges. One of the interviewees is Fels own Business Coordinator Anthony Banks. Read about his experience with G!P here.

It was my privilege to hear their personal stories of going back to school to achieve greater life goals. Not only were these interviewees willing to share very personal information with me about their struggles and dreams, but they have graciously agreed to share their stories with the world. Graduate! Philadelphia’s website will feature each person’s story in their new Testimonials page. The testimonials will also be used as the foundation for G!P’s first annual report.

I cannot express in words how much respect and admiration I have for these individuals. What they have each had to overcome to go back to school and make their dreams a reality is awe-inspiring.

Without knowing it, the Comebakers have created a legacy for themselves. Through uplifting themselves they have uplifted others around them. We can all be part of that legacy by recognizing the value in uplifting our communities, one person at a time, and by doing what we can to push our society to place a higher priority on helping more adults complete their college degree.

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