Convicted felons, former gang members and school dropouts don’t typically get scholarships to go to college. In fact, they aren’t expected to go to college at all: Fewer than one percent go to college.
Students who have taken years to earn their high school equivalency, some while serving time in prison, don’t have access to the same level of financial assistance as students with academic or athletic achievements.
Even Boston’s free community college tuition program isn’t available to those who earned graduate equivalencies rather than high school diplomas.
Yet these students with troubled pasts, those who don’t make it in the vast majority of institutions, are the best ones to invest in. Their success returns the highest dividends.
College Bound Dorchester’s three-year initiative, Boston Uncornered, empowers the gang involved to get out of the corner that poverty creates, and off of the corner where poverty becomes violence. The students in this program receive a stipend of $400 per week as they work towards getting a college degree. We have seen promising results from the 40 students involved in the pilot to date. Their engagement and college participation is higher than national averages for all students.
Some people will say that the cost of doing this is too high. This is not a question of should we spend the money, but rather how we spend it. Gang-involved youth nationally cost our country about $100,000 per year in cost associated with incarceration, policing and other social services.
Though these measures can curb violence, those we pay in this manner tend to repeat their behaviors year after year. Boston Uncornered costs less than a third of this and produces college graduates from the investment. They then contribute directly to our economy and serve as role models about a different path.
Others ask if these students are smart enough to handle college. We say they are exceptionally so. It takes natural charisma, intelligence and talent to survive life on the streets and become leaders. Gang members influence others and have followers. With the right motivation and support, the same qualities that made them leaders on the streets translate directly into being exceptional students who are positive role models.
It is easy to see gang members as the problem. They create crime and violence in inner cities across the country. They are the one percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the homicides in Boston. They control the five percent of city corners that are home to 75 percent of violent crime. With this much chaos surrounding them, it’s natural to see them as the problem and stop there. The insight of Boston Uncornered is that it’s this group – the one that folks are afraid of, the one we walk away from, the one we think is holding us back – that is actually the solution. Their outsized influence can be turned into positive influence as well. By going to college and being a positive influence in their communities, the formerly gang-involved are the ones who can bring an end to systemic, generational urban poverty.
The goal of Boston Uncornered over the next three years is to engage 30 percent of the gang-involved youth from six of Boston’s 14 most dangerous geographic hotspots. And to show that gang involved youth can change the world if given the chance. They will do the hard work of moving from the corner to college and influencing their family and friends. All we have to do is “uncorner” our minds.
Mark Culliton is the founder and CEO of College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit organization that is poised to be a national model for using education to end systemic, generational urban poverty.