‘I can take a failing grade,’ but not homelessness: The hard choices some Detroit students make for college success

It was a heavy moment during a panel discussion about college success when Myla Smith described the financial challenges that led to some impossible choices.

During her freshman year at Michigan State University, Smith said, the struggles she and other students from low-income backgrounds faced left them working as many hours as they could to bring in cash they needed to live. Financial aid wasn’t enough.

“Sometimes work was more important than class,” said Smith, a graduate of Osborn High School in Detroit who now works as a college advisor at a high school in Romulus. “Because, I can take a failing grade, but I can’t take being homeless. Do you guys understand?”

The discussion came during an event put on Friday by the Detroit College Access Network, an organization that coordinates efforts to ensure all students in the city have the opportunity to attend college. (Full disclosure: I moderated the panel discussion.)

Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, was one of four college students and recent college graduates that spoke to the audience about their experiences, both in high school during the college preparation process, and when they arrived on campus. 

Ashley Johnson, the director of the college access network, said she hopes Smith’s story opens the eyes of some of the college officials who were in the audience.

“It was really powerful,” Johnson said.

The idea behind the panel discussion was to help people understand the challenges facing students from the city who go on to college. It’s also the goal of a series, called Ready or Not, that Chalkbeat launched in September. The series follows a separate group of recent Detroit high school graduates through what is often a challenging first year of college.

Nationally, only 60% of students who enroll at four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. That is the average for all students — the six-year college graduation rate is much lower for black students (40%), Hispanic students (55%), and students from low income families (49%).

Smith shared the stage with De’Ernst Johnson, a graduate of Davis Aerospace Technical High School who now is studying performing and fine arts at Schoolcraft College in Livonia. He spoke about the importance of having high school staff who invest time in helping students prepare for the challenges of college.

“I had an immense support team with the counselor at my high school and the assistant principal and a couple of teachers who not only saw the best in me but also told me about … how I could progress even more.”

He’s driven, in part, because he wants to set a good example for his younger siblings.

“I want to show them that there is another way of life out there and you don’t have to just go to high school and that’s the end of your education. You can go to college … and do anything you want to do.”

Anton Bronson’s moment of clarity came when he went to the college graduation of a cousin. He recalled seeing people graduating to go on to become doctors, nurses, and “careers I never heard of before.”

“It was kind of inspiring,” said Bronson, a graduate of Cass Technical High School now studying business at Oakland Community College.

America Yahya graduated from Voyageur College Preparatory High School in Detroit and is now studying social work and public health at Wayne State University.

She described growing up the youngest of nine children, with a mother who never went to school and a father who had to drop out of school in his native Yemen while in middle school. Before transferring to Voyageur, she said, she attended another charter school that didn’t push college and didn’t offer college preparatory classes. What helped, she said, was getting involved in an organization that helped her see the possibilities of college.

She urged those in attendance to do the same for other youth.

“Look to your neighbors, look to your community and see what you can do for them,” Yahya said.

Smith’s advice to those working with young people: Affirm them, and “tell them they can do whatever they put their mind to.”

She said that being the top student in her school meant getting a lot of attention from the staff. But, she said, “that took a lot of attention away from other students. They didn’t get pushed to go and contact colleges and to apply for scholarships.”

“Being a college adviser, sometimes I feel like I’m the only one telling students that they are worthy, that you don’t need to be in the top 10% to go to college. It’s very sad.”