Episode 611: Community : Planet Money Only one in three students finish community college—even if money is not the problem.
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Episode 611: Community

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Episode 611: Community

Episode 611: Community

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Sometimes President Obama has this odd way of unveiling his plans. He'll go straight to the Internet. He'll try and talk directly to young people, like in this video right here.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm here on Air Force One, just leaving Detroit on my way to Phoenix.

SMITH: This is the president of the United States talking directly into the camera. He is in his shirt sleeves, no jacket, no tie. He's leaning back against a desk, and he wanted to, in this super casual way, propose this really big, important thing.


OBAMA: I'm also going to do is announce a proposal that I'm going to be making to make sure that community college is accessible for everybody. Put simply, what I'd like to do is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who's willing to work for it.

SMITH: Now, for a long time, people have been talking about the importance of community college. A college degree gives you a way better shot at getting a job, and for lots and lots of people, community college is the best option. It's a gateway to a B.A.


But there is a problem with paying for everyone to go to community college, a problem people have known about for a long time, which is only 1 in 3 people graduate from community college.

SMITH: Welcome back, Zoe. It's good to have you on the podcast.

CHACE: Hello.

SMITH: You spent some time in this past year talking to students in community college.

CHACE: I did. And the money is not the only reason that a large group of students don't get their degrees. They start community colleges fine. Financial aid covers their tuition, but still in that first year, most times, they drop out. Like, when you look at the entering class of an average community college, only 1 out of 3 students will get a degree, even if you factor in a little extra time - 1 out of 3.


SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

CHACE: I'm Zoe Chase. And today on the show - why is it so hard to get through community college? We follow one young man who was convinced that he was the one in the 1 and 3 who would make it. He is bigger than life. He is one of the most confident people I have ever met.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: Throughout my whole life, I try at something. Not only do I get it, I usually, like, sweep it. Like, I'm - like, I'm vastly superior to most if I try at something.

CHACE: And his story tells us a lot about why the graduation rate is so low.

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CHACE: Demetrius Wilson grew up in the Bronx and Harlem. He looks like a grown-up from the back. He's a big guy. He's kind of tall and imposing. He is a baby-faced teenager in the front, and he is a supremely confident individual. No matter what he is doing, he always thinks he's going to be the best at it.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: Like, I feel, like I could've been a great wrestler. I'm - damn I could've been one of the best wrestlers anybody's ever seen.

CHACE: This is the way he talks - big dreams. Demetrius wants to make a movie of himself, write a novel about himself, and his big plan for college is to become the best videogame designer in the world. Demetrius is really quick, super smart, but he's a bit of a slacker; like sometimes he didn't do all his work in high school. And he ended up at a community college in upstate New York - Finger Lakes Community College, five hours north of New York City. That first day, when his mom dropped him off, it was his first time on his own.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: And when she dropped me off and went back to New York and - I'm sitting in my room. I was like I'm alone. Like, this is it. I'm here on my own now. It was somber, but at the same time it was exciting. Like, I'm alone, and then I was like, I'm alone (laughter). My roommate hadn't gotten there yet. I was like this is pretty awesome. Like, I stepped outside as if to test it, like, opened the door, looked around and I was like, I can just go (laughter) like, just go anywhere. Like, this is good.

CHACE: It was all good. It was great. A lot of the schoolwork was easier than high school. Getting girlfriends was definitely easier than it had been in high school. And he keeps telling himself...

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: OK, you know, school's the main focus. I'm going to make sure I do it. And at first, I was, but then I started going to parties when I should be studying or doing homework, started hanging out late, you know. Xbox One and PS4 came out, you know, during that stretch.

CHACE: There are a few classic reasons why only 1 in 3 students makes it through community college. A lot of students run out of money and quit. Some have a sudden family problem. Their kid gets sick or a spouse loses their job. Demetrius had another issue that everyone talks about - motivation.

Nobody was in Demetrius' life to say, hey, maybe you should go back to studying. This was the biggest difference between high school and college. No one is collecting your homework. No one's making sure you're keeping up with the reading. And as Demetrius went to fewer and fewer classes, nobody seemed to notice, at least according to him. Then a relative died. He had to go back to New York City for the funeral, told everyone in the family school was going great, went back to college, but he never went back to class.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I thought I could get it together, but I couldn't. I basically checked out. I stopped going for the most part. There'd be times where I would just be in my room, like, I would just sit in there and cry. And at the same time, it made me feel worse 'cause I knew I was failing. I knew I screwed up in my first semester.

CHACE: It wasn't just school. He was also behind on his rent. He owed a couple thousand dollars. He got evicted. It was overwhelming. In January, he was officially a dropout.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: Honestly I never even registered for classes, basically started living on the run. I was hiding out in my best friend's room immediately next door. It was bad. I was basically homeless.

CHACE: His family didn't know what was going on, but the school must've known. They could see that Demetrius stopped going to class, that he didn't re-enroll in January. And I wanted to ask someone at the college, why didn't you do something? Barbara Risser, the school president, offered to talk to me, but, of course, she did not remember Demetrius. I had to tell her the whole story.

BARBARA RISSER: Oh, yes. I've heard of students like that before. College is hard work, and a lot of students arrive not really understanding what's required of them or not quite ready to do it.

CHACE: A lot of students at her school. Forty-four percent don't finish, and she knows it's a problem, one that is in no way unique to her community college. Risser told me about a task force and a new tracking system. Some students are in a group called Project Success. But the support that existed on campus in the fall when Demetrius was slipping away, that support requires some initiative on the part of the student.

RISSER: We have support here, but we can't force students to take advantage of it. In the end, they're adults, and they have to make choices and decisions.

CHACE: And that was the problem. Demetrius wasn't quite an adult, and his choices were not great. For instance, his plan for getting out of this mess - get a full-time job at Taco Bell, pay off the debt that he owed, tell his parents he was still in school the whole time - like actually text his dad fake transcripts of grades he was not getting typed out on the computer. Then he would secretly re-enroll in the fall.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: There was a point where I kind of hit rock bottom when I was - I was in Taco Bell. I was on my shift, and I think they had me mopping the floors. So essentially I was cleaning the floors at a Taco Bell. Like, and I, like, paused for a minute. Like, I - like, I didn't even care if my boss saw me. I just stopped, and I looked up. And I looked around, and I was like no. Like, how am I here right now? Like, you hear these kinds of stories as a cautionary tale. How am I here?

CHACE: So this was Demetrius's life. And then that spring, his whole secret plan gets put to the test because his dad calls. His dad calls him up all upbeat and excited. Hey, I'm going to be upstate, he says, I thought I would stop by school, see you for a few days. Please meet Demetrius Wilson Sr.

DEMETRIUS WILSON SR.: I'm talking to him, and he said to me, well, Dad, you know, the weekend would be better because I'm not as busy with schoolwork and work. So the weekend would be great. We can do anything. I said sure, no problem. I'm on my way. He has no idea I'm on my way.

CHACE: Demetrius Sr. drives the 300-odd miles to Demetrius' school. Demetrius Sr. now works for the New York Sanitation Department. He's a former rapper in Virginia, former personal trainer in Manhattan. He had some days off. He figured take a little vacation, drive around the wineries up there and check on his son's college life.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: He said I'm in room 220, 222 something. So I see these two girls in front of his door that he said he's in. I thought he's living the life. This is a good dude. I'm so proud of him. These two pretty girls are standing there. I was like are they going to - are you looking for Demetrius? I thought they were going to say that. They didn't say that. I go up to the room. The girls take off. They had nothing to do with him. I go to the room, open the door. They're just sitting there - hi, hi. I see the videogame on the big screen.

CHACE: Demetrius stuck to his policy - admit nothing.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I mean, I was still acting like everything's great. Like, oh, hey, Dad, great to see you.

CHACE: And he says, oh, I would be in class, except it was canceled. His dad looks at him.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: No class today? Teacher wasn't sick yesterday? You just found out on a short notice? All right. We'll let that ride.

CHACE: What are you thinking, though? You thinking anything?

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: Oh, yeah. Right there, and I - we got a thing called jukes. When someone running jukes, you could see.

CHACE: Jukes - it's slang. It just kind of means running a con game.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: Jukes is I'm going to try and get over. And people do it all the time. Like, they say something to you. You're like that don't match up with what they just said.

CHACE: So the next day, Demetrius's dad says, hey, I want to go with you to one of your classes. Let's walk over to one of your classes together.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: So he walks around - all the way around. Finally, we get to another part of the campus. He goes into an empty trailer. I'm on it now.

CHACE: Yeah.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: No one's in the class. The class is cut off - lights off. Now, I'm in there like this, sitting there. So he says, just one minute, and walks out the door.

CHACE: Demetrius was looking for a class - any class he could pretend was his - and nobody was around.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I went to, like, a random classroom. It was actually one of the classes that I was going to before. I was hoping there would be someone there. It didn't work. He could smell blood in the water.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: All right, home boy, take me to the office. Huh? Huh? Take me to the office. Oh, it's closed. Well, then it should be a short trip. Take me to the office. If it's closed, it's going to be a short trip, right?

CHACE: I can't stand it. Like, I'm so nervous.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: So now I'm like this. We get in there. Hi, how are you doing? My name is Demetrius Wilson. Where is he supposed to be? His name is Demetrius Wilson.

CHACE: The woman at the registrar's office types Demetrius's name.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I was like, I am about to die. This is exactly what I feared. Terror is not the word (laughter).

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: She looks at me. She looks at him, looks at me, looks at him, looks at the board, looks at the computer - don't know what to say. Sir, he's not registered this year.

CHACE: Demetrius marches his son out to the car, shuts him inside and takes a walk. His thoughts are going 100 miles an hour.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: I just walk. I walk, and I walk. And I'm like, oh, man. You failed them. You should've been there, man. You can't hurt him now. What do you do, man? Do you hurt him? No, don't hurt him. If you hurt him, man, then what do you prove, man? He can't be up here. Can he go back to school? This is me walking around the campus.

CHACE: He knows how his kid must be feeling, how hard it can be to push yourself through your doubts. He knows how hard it is to turn around after that because Demetrius Sr., he dropped out of college. Eventually, he went back and got his degree. But he has been here, at this moment, before. He says, actually, more than a few times in his life he came right up to the edge of where he was about to be successful, and then he stopped. And he remembers thinking at those moments, who am I to think that I could do it? And he knows he doesn't want his son to think this way. So Demetrius Sr. comes up with this plan. We're going to try this whole community college thing again - but this time without the assumption that Demetrius is an adult. This time, someone will be watching his every move.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: There's no you make the decision. No, I make the decision, and we'll discuss it. But you don't make the decision and come back to me because who are you to make the decision? You haven't even been that - you haven't had that much experience.

CHACE: They drive back to New York City. And Demetrius Jr. does not have that glorious feeling of being all alone anymore. He's not in a dorm-like place. He's on his dad's couch. He's not on the Xbox all day. He's working. His dad helped him get a job at FAO Schwarz. And his new community college is 10 minutes away from his dad's apartment. It's called Hostos Community College. And Demetrius is lucky in a way because Hostos is already onto this problem that Demetrius faced at the other college, this motivational problem. They assign each incoming freshman a success coach at the beginning of the school year, someone whose full-time job is to check in on the student all year long, help them register for classes, figure out their financial aid, get them tutoring, whatever. At Hostos, Demetrius's success coach is this guy named Ray Cartegena. And like every student, he goes to meet with him at the end of the semester.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I'm here to see if my advisor can help me get into an honors English class.

CHACE: His adviser's a big guy, Navy reserve, tattoos with these monster-size arms. And he makes Demetrius look little. Ray's leaning over Demetrius, setting up his schedule on the computer, when something unexpected happens.


DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: No, that doesn't work.

RAY CARTEGENA: It doesn't work, 12:30?

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: Because here's the thing, all right? This is going to be somewhat embarrassing. My father takes issue with having three classes on one day and one class on another day.

CARTEGENA: Do you think maybe that's a conversation that I can have with him?

CHACE: So they call Dad, Demetrius Sr., in the middle of the day. Of course he answers after, like, the first ring.


CARTEGENA: Hello, Sir?


CARTEGENA: How are you? My name is Ray Cartegena. I'm Demetrius's success coach here. And we're trying to build a schedule for him now.

CHACE: And Demetrius's dad says, my problem is the one day having so much time on your hands.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: I have a history with him. And too much time...


DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: On your hands could lead to issues. So I'm like, if that's what - all he can do, then this semester around, I will figure out a way to occupy his time.

CHACE: I will figure out a way to occupy his time. Between the two of them, they go through maybe basketball, volunteer work. And this might sound like kind of a crazy amount of micromanaging for someone who is in college, but it is working. His father is watching him, and Demetrius is doing good. He is doing so good. He is great. It's the kind of boast he would come up with about himself except this time, it's true. Demetrius is getting straight A's. He is at the top of his class. He is a senator in the student government. And being Demetrius, he gives himself a lot of the credit. He has his swagger back. I was destined to be great, he says. I am making my own greatness. And Demetrius says I don't just want to be the 1 in 3 that makes it.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: If there is a valedictorian spot available, that is what I am trying to get.

CHACE: That's your spot.

DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: Yeah. And if someone somehow beats me out and becomes valedictorian, then I should at least be salutatorian. If someone somehow pulls that off, hats off to them. Truly, they're moving on to do great things, whatever they happen to be doing. I have to be a close second. So...

CHACE: Demetrius's dad does think his son is capable of great things - just not all by himself quite yet.

DEMETRIUS WILSON WILSON SR.: The difference between Demetrius and myself, quite honestly, is that I didn't have me. The moment you say you can't do it - oh, I don't have to do it - there should be something to push you. Sometimes, it has to be external. I don't think I had it externally. And I think internally, I knew I could. But if someone - no, don't turn this way; there ain't no back. You got to go.

CHACE: Right now, that's the challenge for community college. Not everyone has a dad like Demetrius. What is going to be their external force? What is going to tell them not to stop? And can the school provide that thing? We have this arbitrary line. In high school, you're a kid. People watch your every move. Three months later, you go to college. And you're expected to be an adult. It's all on you, and that trips up a lot of students.


GROUPLOVE: (Singing) Oh, I got a little bit longer. I got a ways to go.

SMITH: Let us know what you thought of today's episode. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can tweet us @PlanetMoney. We read them all.

CHACE: And I have a couple people that I'd like to thank. Thank you to Planet Money for having me back. And thank you to a whole bunch of people who helped me in the research for this story. So I'm just going to go through them, Melinda Carp and Davis Jenkins with the Columbia Community College Research Center, Josh Wyner with the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute - incredibly helpful, Soldanela Rivera-Lopez at Hostos Community College and Jessica Youngman at Finger Lakes Community College, thank you so much, and Angela Rios with the success coaching office at Hostos.

SMITH: And I wanted to thank our colleagues at This American Life. A version of this story will appear in a future episode. Now that you've finished Planet Money, another podcast you might want to listen to is Alt Latino, also from NPR. It is a weekly dive into the world of Latin alternative music and culture. You can hear psychedelic tropical music from the jungles of Peru, Mexican folk rhythms mixed with electronic. You can find Alt Latino at npr.org/podcasts. I'm Robert Smith. Our producer is Jess Jiang.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

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