By Dana Castillo –Today’s headlines about college students tend to focus on insurmountable debt and the rising cost of college. And those are important issues to address, but all too often, the higher education conversation forgets nontraditional students with college aspirations who struggle to even get their foot in the door—because they need more preparation or a high school credential before they start college. These are the working mothers who had to drop out of high school to raise a family. They’re the individuals who couldn’t finish high school because they had to prioritize finding a job to keep a roof over their head. They’re the women who immigrated from war-torn countries in search of a better life.
According the Census Bureau, of the almost half a million Hispanic women over the age of 25 in Illinois who have less than a bachelor’s degree, nearly 200,000 have less than a high school diploma or equivalency. The implications of not having a degree are far too costly for women of color: less education means less money, means a greater chance of unemployment, and a greater chance of poverty.
We cannot afford to let women of color down. Latinas are already among the lowest-paid in the United States and are more likely to work in sectors like retail that provide miserable wages and few—if any—benefits. In other words, they are among the population that could benefit the most from earning a degree that leads to family-sustaining wages.
But it isn’t easy when the road isn’t well-paved. Adult education programs, where adults go when they want to improve their skills or get a GED, are often unconnected to college programs, and the numbers who attend adult education and then transition to college are abysmally low.
I was fortunate. When I was preparing for college, I had supportive mentors to guide me through the process. But if we want to create a world where education is the great equalizer, we need to address inequalities that exclude the most vulnerable. We need to create a system that works for everyone— one that includes adults who want and need to pursue a degree to obtain a better quality of life, but who don’t yet qualify for college-level programs.
By 2020, 67 percent of jobs will require a college degree or certificate, which is why it’s even more critical that we don’t leave the millions of adults without a degree in Illinois behind.
Fortunately, there are people—advocates, policy-makers, and educators—working hard to make sure the American Dream becomes a reality. Together,these leaders are working to align the adult education and post-secondary system, and make the pathways to and through college clear and straightforward. Our goal is that from the minute an adult without a high school diploma decides to pursue their education, they have the option of making it all the way to graduation day with support along the way.
No adult without a high school diploma who wants to pursue higher education should be left wondering how to navigate a complex system. We need to ensure that the path is clear so that they can walk towards a brighter future for them and for their families.
Dana Castillo is a Program Coordinator at Women Employed, a 43-year-old advocacy organization that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women.