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Start Well, Finish Well

Start Well, Finish Well

My middle child graduated from college last summer.  When he started as a freshman, I had visions of his graduation and had even let my thoughts wander to what career he might choose.  In my mind this whole process would take exactly 4 years-or less-because back in my day that was the norm.

Along his college journey he changed majors twice, and ran into a few snags getting classes he needed lined up in the right order.

I would lament to him and ask my friends with college aged kids, “what is taking so long?”  Some of them shared they were having the same experience with their kids.  Five and a half years later, my vision of him graduating materialized and he is out taking on the world.  What I am now discovering is that a process that I felt took entirely too long is not happening at all for many students.  With my kids I was always worried about them getting in to college and gave little thought to them finishing- even if it took longer than I thought it should.

Recently through the Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s work on college access for high school seniors in our region, I have come to realize that getting into college or a trade school is just half the battle our students are facing.  Once they are in, they can struggle to stay in and eventually graduate, all the while, student debt is piling up and without a degree or certification they are challenged to pay it back.  The more I learn the more grateful I am that my son was able to finish school, no matter the timeline.

At the Foundation we have been working so hard garnering the resources to launch kids into college and certification programs, I had lost sight that this is just the beginning of the journey and students need support all the way through.

I had heard anecdotally from students and parents that kids were struggling to complete post-secondary opportunities even when their hard work of getting in to college had paid off. Many had received financial aid and scholarships, but once they were away at school they did not have the financial and emotional support to succeed and many returned home.  Then when I looked at the data to confirm what I was hearing, I was shocked.  The numbers at some state schools dip into the 20% range for 4 year college graduation rates.  In some cases the numbers are dropping and not improving.  Statewide the University system is showing gains in the 6 year graduation rates, but it is important to examine the trend school by school.

I wonder what would have happened to my kids if they had lost their scholarships, moved to a campus where they didn’t feel as if they fit in, or I was unable to help them with expenses along the way.  They would have faced struggles they had not counted on and may have had to leave school for extended periods of time.

Changing majors and class schedules now seem like minor issues comparatively.  I wish in my son’s case I would have been more informed.  Just another one of those times I wish I could go back and say “keep going, you are going to make it” instead of “how much longer?”

So if you are involved in helping a student launch into their next big step out of high school, don’t forget that their story is just starting.  We need to help them not only start well, but finish well.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been supporting the communities of Lee, Charlotte, Glades, Hendry, and Collier counties since 1976. With assets over $75 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $57 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. For more information, please call 274-5900, or visit our web site at


Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, President & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, leads a passionate and diverse team dedicated to driving regional change for the common good. The Foundation is committed to engaging the community in conversations and action that creates sustainable positive change and provides the funding to make those changes a reality. More