How college is helping keep the American dream alive

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Posted at 1:24 PM, Jun 23, 2022

A recent Pew Research study found that high school graduates represented the largest drop from the middle class in the last 50 years. This becomes particularly challenging in low-income environments where it's more attractive for high school graduates to find jobs immediately rather than pay for college.

In Indiana, it's become a major initiative statewide. At a robotics camp in Columbus, 30 kids in a town of 50,000 residents are trying to be part of the solution.

Karen Camargo’s son Tomas attended the camp over the last four summers. Now, he is a counselor.

Karen grew up in Argentina. Her now-husband is from Brazil. Her twins, Tomas, and Maria were born in Mexico. They all moved to Columbus, Indiana for a job for her husband and the educational possibilities for the kids. 

“They got here, and they didn’t speak any English. The first day at the school, I cried and cried and cried for leaving them at the school,” Camargo said. “I knew I wanted the best for them. For me, it’s the priority in my life.”

Chris Lowery is Indiana’s new head of the state’s commission for higher education.

“There’s this dichotomy of what people are thinking about higher education and then a whole stream of social data. Outcomes are generally just better with postsecondary attainment,” Lowery said. 

In the fall of 2011, an estimated 20 million American high school graduates enrolled in college. In the decade that’s followed, that number has fallen every single year. More children are getting through high school, earning a diploma, and not taking the next step.  Meanwhile, data shows that between Karen’s generation and her children’s, the middle class in America has gotten smaller. The largest group falling out is high school graduates who don’t continue to college. 

The focus in Indiana has been to look within communities for trusted advocates. In Columbus, that’s Mariana Petraglia.  She is one of the state’s padres Estrella’s, or star parents. She guides Hispanic and Latino parents through an often-intimidating process. 

“It’s super-hard if you do not speak the language and you just come here without knowing how to make friends, how to understand the school process,” Petraglia said.

Lowery adds, “Is it tempting for someone who’s in high school who can make 15-20 dollars an hour doing something to say, ‘Why do I need to college?’”

Whatever the barrier, Petraglia and individuals across Indiana work to clear it. Sometimes that’s informing parents. Sometimes that’s showing what’s possible to the children. 

Which leads us to camp.  The Latino Lego robotics camp takes place on a college campus. It teaches a lucrative skill. Petraglia champions it. Tomas volunteers at it, all while his path continues. 

“In the fall, he’s going to high school. It’s a new chapter of his life. And we are very proud of him,” Camargo said. “I think the most joy for parents is seeing your kids happy and realizing the dreams of their life. I think this gives us a huge peace in our heart.”