Temple Univ. initiative aims to keep more Black Philly youth in college

Poverty, violence hurt retention efforts, study finds

By: - November 1, 2021 10:08 am

Temple University in Philadelphia (Image via Temple University/The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Alan Tucker

PHILADELPHIA — An alarming number of Philadelphia residents face frequent challenges, hardships, and obstacles in pursuit of earning a college degree.

Daniel Liberis, a West Oak Lane resident, is one of thousands of African-American students in Philadelphia who have dropped out of college due to economic hardships.

With the guidance of Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, Liberis recently reconnected with like minded peers and gained a network of support and access to resources that will help him achieve his academic goals.

In light of a new survey released by the Hope Center, the organization is now recommending for both the city and state to implement widespread action to uplift residents out of poverty and into prosperity. Their survey highlights affordability as the key barrier for those who live In the nation’s poorest major city whom wish to excel in college and ultimately earn a degree.

Liberis, like many young high school graduates, was seeking a change in environment and an opportunity for upward mobility or as he says “a better life.” Part of his reason for applying to college was also to flee communities with high crime rates.

“I applied partly because I didn’t want to be home inside a community with violence, there’s so much violence in the city. I wanted to be in an environment where I could focus on school,” he said.

Liberis initially started his college journey at Kutztown University in Berks County. He ultimately withdrew due to financial burdens or as the #RealCollege survey suggests, “basic needs insecurity.”

“My father’s business was actually encountering financial instability, in fact some financial problems. He wasn’t able to put me through school like how he initially said he would. Life happens. Life hit him like it hit me. We’re all humans at the end of the day,” Liberis said.

“My mother refused to take out any loans, my father couldn’t take out any loans, and I didn’t have any credit or was under the age of 21 so I needed a co-signer,” Liberis said.

Testimonials like Liberis’ are starting to sound too familiar. Fortunately for him and as a result of his hard work and dedication, he’s back on track, working, and currently attending Penn State University and is scheduled to graduate in 2022.

The Hope Center’s recommendations are aimed at reversing the trend of Philadelphians dropping out of college. In the city, approximately one in four residents lives in poverty, and more than one in six residents over 25 started college but left before graduation. Comparatively, half of the city’s available jobs require at least some education beyond high school.

“When communities fail to support students, they fail at allowing them to succeed,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, president and CEO of The Hope Center. “We urge community leaders and organizations to use our recommendations to change the trajectory of Philadelphia’s aspiring adult students.”

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Recommendations include augmenting existing community-based and college-run programs aimed at those who have not completed degrees, expanding access to supports like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), creating a citywide emergency aid fund and expanding affordable child care offerings.

Victoria Peurifoy is going for her bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership at Peirce College. At 69, she’s considered a senior citizen student.

“I’m a writer and spoken word artist who is also a ghost writer, facilitator and speaker. And I find that people who have certain credentials behind their names, get more play than someone who supposedly doesn’t, not considering the level of experience that they have,”  Peurifoy said.

Peurifoy has been assisted by Graduate! Philadelphia and wrote a book which debuted Oct. 9.

“Philadelphians Speak Up About Barriers to College Completion” features the efforts of community organizations such as Graduate! ­­Philadelphia to lift adult students out of poverty and into prosperity. It also recommends key actions by city and state leaders to help Philadelphians find an affordable way to complete their studies and improve their economic mobility.

Peurifoy has three adult children who support her wholeheartedly. But when they were younger it was challenging to care for a family and maintain a full time student status.

However, she managed to complete an associate program at the Community College of Philadelphia but desired to go further years later.

“The day that I was supposed to graduate from community college in 1993 was the same day that I was burying my mother. So a lot of things I put off [due to ] family, life, work, responsibilities and all that,” said Peurifoy.

Nearly two out of five survey respondents without a college degree said rent and child care are not affordable while trying to attend college.

“Those were some of the reasons why everything was delayed. But then when my sister presented to me about going back to school, of course I made the normal excuses. What am I supposed to do? and how am I supposed to do that?”

“I can’t afford that, you know. But she said, stop making excuses and just go, a way will be made. So, fortunately, the gentleman who was my enrollment counselor asked if I graduated from community college. I said, “yes”, he said,” you know, they have a grant that they give students that graduate from community college to come to Pierce?,” said Peurifoy.

The financial award and flattering letters of recommendations made achieving a bachelor’s degree real for Peurifoy.

“The one thing that was a very big advantage of having the scholarship was that it allowed me to pay for books. The books for my class were very expensive,” she said.

In Peurifoy’s case “The Triumph Continues,” the name of her new motivational memoir and as a COVID-19 survivor her story is her story of triumph. Like Liberis, she is scheduled to graduate next year.

For Peurifoy and Liberis, things are seemingly well but overall there is much more that needs to be done to create better opportunities for Philadelphia residents.

The coronavirus pandemic created new hardships and is having longer lasting effects on African-American students for various reasons. One serious concern is the increase in violent crimes in Philadelphia over the last year.

“Safety plays a big role,” said Jabari Jones, president of West Philadelphia’s largest coalition of small businesses and the convener of West Philadelphia’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“We’ve had two recent incidents that happened in the middle of the day, of like four people getting shot or three people getting shot. And so our students and parents hear those stories or things of that nature, and make different kinds of decisions and say you know what?, I don’t want to be on campus or I may not want an off campus apartment or some students are even making the decision to say hey you know what I think I’m going to take classes online only and stay home,” Jones said.

“Ultimately the decisions that people, we’ve kind of been advocating for a while, are then deciding either not to be here in our community or also not to shop in our community. That overwhelmingly affects the economy of West Philadelphia and the businesses that are around those college campuses that depend on that business, because they’re going to see decreased traffic,” he said.

Alan Tucker is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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