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Op-Ed Columnist: A $20 Million Gift for College

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“You hear people say, ‘Well, a four-year degree isn’t needed,’ ” Connie Ballmer, the philanthropist and wife of the former Microsoft C.E.O. Steve Ballmer, recently told me.

“But then if you turn to them and say, ‘What do you want for your child?’ they wouldn’t dream of not having their kid go to a four-year college,” she continued. “They said it’s not needed — but they need it.”

Ballmer is right. The boomlet of skepticism about college comes disproportionately from upper-middle-class people who have the luxury of airing hypothetical concerns about education, without having to worry that their own children will be influenced by them. Yet the misplaced skepticism can do real damage to poor and working-class teenagers who hear it and take it seriously.

The evidence remains overwhelming: College is the single most reliable path to the middle class and beyond. No, it doesn’t guarantee a good life. Nothing does. But earning a good living without a college degree today is difficult.

College graduates earn vastly more and are far more likely to be employed. They live longer, are more likely to be married and are more satisfied on average with their lives. These relationships appear to be at least partly causal, too. If you want more details, you can read some of my previous columns or dig into a long trail of academic studies.

I was talking to Connie Ballmer because she and her husband recently donated $20 million to an organization with a track record of helping more low- and middle-income students go to college. It’s called College Advising Corps. It started in 2005 and now oversees about 650 recent college graduates. They work for two-year stints in high schools across the country, advising students about two- and four-year colleges.

The advisers are needed because many high-school guidance counselors are overworked. Nationwide, the average counselor is responsible for almost 500 students, according to Nicole Hurd, the founder of College Advising Corps. The student advisers also have the advantage of empathy: Many are themselves recent first-generation college graduates.

As Ballmer says, the counselors are sending an implicit message to the students: “You can do this.” The Ballmer gift will allow the advising corps to grow by about 50 percent in coming years to 1,000. It will also help the organization evaluate its results and try to


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