NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Folashade Olatunde is a teen in the “Boogie down Bronx,” where hip-hop was supposedly born. It’s also a part of New York City where most families earn under $30,000 a year.
Expect to see her on TV or running for elected office one day, she says, but right now she’s focused on college. Only 11% of adults in her zip code have a bachelor’s degree.
“I would be the first person out of my entire family to graduate college,” Olatunde told CNNMoney. Her mother and brother took a few classes but never earned degrees.
A high school senior with a big smile and “a lot of talents,” Olatunde has already had a taste of success. In December, she sang at a taping of ABC’s “The View” in front of her idol Raven-Symoné. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama gave her a hug, congratulating her on being accepted to college.
“That really motivated me,” says Olatunde.
Defying the odds
New York University was Olatunde’s “dream school” because of its reputation in her favorite fields: journalism and the arts.
“The hardest part was choosing if I should stay home or go away for college,” she says.
As the months went by, reality hit. She didn’t get in to New York University. She was accepted by half a dozen schools, but most didn’t give her enough financial aid.
Unaffordable tuition is a key reason why low-income students don’t finish college. As if getting in isn’t tough enough, once they enroll in college, only 22% of students from families earning less than $35,000 a year graduate with a bachelor’s degree. That’s according to a report from The Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
At the other end of the spectrum, 96% of students from wealthy families complete their degrees once they enroll in college.
The affordable option: staying close to home
To make it work financially, Olatunde will stay at home and attend York College next year. It’s part of the public university system in New York City known as CUNY. Tuition is only $6,400 a year.
“I don’t care about the name of the college. I care about what the school has to offer,” she says. York College has promised her a counselor for four years, a summer pre-college prep program and funds to help her buy books and supplies.
High school culture makes a difference
CNNMoney followed Olatunde and several classmates during their senior year of high school as they tried to defy the odds by getting into college from one of America’s poorest neighborhoods.
The students attend Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies, a public high school in the South Bronx that looks like a castle. It was built in the late 1800s and has prestigious alumni, including former Secretary of State and military leader Colin Powell. His picture hangs in the main hallway, a constant reminder of the American Dream.
In some ways, Morris Academy is typical of high schools in poor neighborhoods. Nearly all the students are on the free lunch program and some routinely skip school.
But Morris Academy has something special: mostly young and scrappy teachers and staff. They work Wall Street kind of hours, texting and calling kids to hound them to show up to school and get assignments done. The school partners with everyone from college counseling non-profits to JROTC to get more resources for the school.
“Morris Academy is a really unique school compared to other low achieving NYC high schools,” says Emma Wen, a college advisor funded by College Advising Corps, who started at the school in the fall.
Teachers also talk about college non-stop. On every classroom door, teachers list where they went to university to expose students to the names and logos of more schools. Last year, 42% of seniors went on to enroll in college. Everyone wants that to be higher, but it’s a big increase from just a few years ago.
I’d be the first in my family to go to college
“Students were already very excited about the idea of college when I first met them,” says Wen.
The pro-college message has gotten through to Christian Paulino. He’s a classmate of Olatunde’s and will be the first one in his family to attend college.
“I feel the pressure,” says Paulino, who wants to be a New York City cop. His family’s first born, he has set a high bar for himself and knows his younger brother and sister watch him.
Born in Puerto Rico, Paulino speaks English as a second language. His mother and siblings have moved so many times that Paulino has struggled to catch up in school.
“I had nobody to look out for me,” he says, until he met the baseball coach and principal at Morris Academy. They became his mentors, even tracking him down if he forgot to go to class.
Low-income students need extra help
“My baseball coach is always telling me: education first, baseball second,” says Paulino. He had hoped to play baseball in college, but he his first choice school — Jefferson Community College — didn’t give him much aid. His mom only earns about $20,000 a year and can’t take out loans.
Paulino is trying to decide what to do. He will probably keep living at home and attend a community college nearby. It’s a common trend for low-income and minority students to start off at community college.
For many students from poorer families, getting into college, let alone graduating from college, takes courage and a lot of mentoring.
Olatunde made her decision to attend York College partly because of its SEEK Program, which provides special academic, finance and counseling assistance to help first generation college students succeed. She has already been on the campus several times and made some friends. Over the summer, Olatunde will take pre-college courses to ensure she’s ready in the fall.
As Michelle Obama told Olatunde and other high school seniors last week, “Ask for help ya’ll. No one gets through college alone.”