Janneth Johnson Smith (Courtesy photo)

For decades, college has been touted as a golden-ticket to a successful career. With tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Austin Russell, dropping out of college but yet still finding success, that narrative has shifted. If they achieved success without degrees, why not skip student loans and late night studying?

The problem is, their outlier stories can negatively impact Black and Brown students–our future leaders– from pursuing college degrees when statistics clearly show college matters greatly for boosting their career prospects and earnings.

A 2022 UC Berkeley study found that non-college-educated, White men earn nearly double their Black peers – $22,056 versus $12,573 per year. With odds already stacked against them from discrimination and other factors, convincing Black and Brown students they can easily replicate billionaire drop-out success stories without college degrees is reckless and removes a proven ladder for upward socio-economic mobility. The bottom line is college becomes a necessity for building wealth and ending generational poverty.

For Black and Brown, or low-income teens, families are highly influential when it comes to whether or not one chooses to attend college. Many studies have shown that children from less educated families are less likely to attend college themselves. For children from less affluent families, this is particularly true, given the costs of pursuing a higher education. Under these circumstances, the obstacles can seem even more insurmountable. However, obtaining a college degree is still one of the most effective paths toward upward economic mobility and can ultimately change the course of a family’s future for many generations.

Schools also play a big role. Students spend over 1,000 hours a year with educators who can impact their journey. Since our inception, Green Dot Public Schools has been working to propel Black students further, giving them the necessary tools to graduate from high school and imagine a post secondary  future that prepares them for the career of their dreams.. Our high schools also focus on helping students achieve GPAs that make them competitive applicants for financial assistance and reduce the burden of high loans.Tools like dual enrollment courses, tutoring, test prep access and dedicated college advising help make college achievable rather than just aspiring. In fact, quite a few of our schools, such as Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School (100%), Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School (92.9%) and Ánimo City of Champions High School (100%), have a Black student graduation rate that far exceeds the state average (78.5%).

The path ahead has challenges, but committed educators and counselors working hand-in-hand with families can help students understand higher education’s promise shouldn’t be defined by wealth, status or background. College remains a gateway, but only if students see it as an attainable possibility and have support turning aspirations into achievement.

One student at a time, Green Dot schools are replacing misleading narratives about the irrelevance of college degrees with the realities around earnings potentials and social mobility for low-income and minority students. But systemic change takes collective action.

As inequality widens in LA, high schools alone can’t provide communities of color pathways to prosperity. At Green Dot, personalized college support curbed enrollment drops during the pandemic. Counselors gave one-on-one advising so students enrolled in high persistence colleges. Alumni Champions held our online Launch to College event. We also created an “opportunity fund” addressing hidden college costs, especially for those attending distant California and out-of-state colleges. Furthermore, College Alumni Mentors assisted students navigating distance learning.

In California, our future depends on making college accessible for all students. By working collectively to provide realistic encouragement and practical pathways, we can help all Angelenos envision college in their future. One story at a time, we must instill the facts over misleading myths. For communities of color and beyond, college is not simply an option – it’s an essential stepping stone towards upward mobility for generations moving forward.

Janneth Johnson Smith is the Senior Director of Counseling and College Persistence at Green Dot Public Schools California, working for over 20 years to help students achieve their college dreams.