There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, Mark Twain infamously said. But some statistics do make you wonder.
Consider these: percentage of women and girls in the United States: 51; percentage of women in the US Senate: 20; percentage of woman CEOs at Fortune 500 companies: 5.
At the other end of the spectrum, women are disproportionately represented. Women in the US are nearly twice as likely as men to be poor. Fifty years after we declared war on poverty, 50 million Americans – well over half of them women – remain poor.
To add further injury to insult, the only group that fares worse than women is children – specifically children of single mothers. Their poverty rate is a staggering 45%. Has poverty won the war by targeting the fairer sex and its progeny?
Not yet. We can still prevail if we harness two trends that at first blush have nothing to do with each other: women in higher education, and technology.
Despite their consistent under-representation at the upper echelons of American society, women do outperform men in one encouraging metric: college enrollment.
Women represent about 55 percent of college attendees today.
But enrolling and attending is only the beginning of the process. The real benefits of college accrue upon graduation. A post-secondary degree has been shown to boost annual earnings by as much as $8,000 for women, compared with $6,000 for men. Consequently, the best way to improve the well-being of children is to educate their mothers.
Most women (and men) of modest means who make it to higher education attend community colleges. In fact, community college students account for about half of all students in higher education. But – you guessed it – half of these students in turn don’t graduate. So they don’t reap the benefits.
What does technology have to do with all this? For the answer to that, we need to understand why it is that so many community college students drop out. The answer, in a word: money.
Community college tuition is inexpensive by the (astronomical) standards of American higher education. But tuition alone isn’t the problem: community college students aren’t your stereotypical teenager from the affluent suburbs. Many are first-generation immigrants; many have full-time jobs to juggle with their studies; many have children to care for, often without a spouse or partner.
Imagine pursuing college while shouldering these added responsibilities. If the choice is as stark (as it often is) between a diploma and dinner for your child, which do you choose?
The tragedy is that we have hundreds of billions of dollars available to help, largely buried under a mountain of red tape. Colleges tell their students about garden-variety financial aid, but they haven’t historically been able to point students in the direction of tax credits, food stamps, low-cost medical insurance, and child-care. In combination, these supports permit struggling students to stay in school and get their degree.
If all that support is out there, why haven’t more families and their children benefited from it? Because many people don’t know about it. And even if they do, it’s fiendishly difficult to access.
Here is where technology finally comes in.
In the time it’s taken you to read this, you could have bought several items on Amazon. But you wouldn’t even have scratched the surface of the application process for any aid programs.
People are finally waking up to the barriers that bureaucracy imposes on student aid generally. Senators Lamar Alexander and Michael Bennet are offering a bi-partisan bill to reduce the FAFSA from ten pages to two questions.
Complex as the FAFSA is, the process for accessing “non-educational” aid puts it to shame.
But if simplified and deployed together, educational and non-educational resources can revolutionize college completion rates. Federal aid provides a maximum of just over $5,600 per year, per student. Our initial evidence shows we can double that.
My organization, Single Stop USA, partners with Community Colleges nationwide to bring our federal and state support system into the 21st Century. Using patented technology, we walk eligible students through the assistance process; searching for help much like they would search for shoes on Amazon.
Our new self-screener program will empower students to undertake that process on their own and to link to help when they need it. It costs nothing and takes virtually no time. Shouldn’t all these breakthroughs in behavioral economics and Big Data be applied to something more lasting than a shopping spree?
We can’t guarantee that women will be adequately represented in political office. We can’t legislate proportional female representation in the boardroom. But we can, and should, take advantage of women’s participation in higher education to give poor women and their families every opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty.
Our pledge at the 2014 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative America is to help more than one million clients a year by 2018 make the most of their educational opportunities, by applying 21st Century tools to something more important than the latest fashion.
The war on poverty continues. Take up your tablets.
This post is part of a series featuring members of the Clinton Global Initiative community. This week, President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton convened CGI America 2014 in Denver, where leaders from every sector advanced strategies to boost America’s economic recovery and long-term competitiveness in the world. In addition to participating in cross-cutting discussions about gender, attendees explored what solutions are working for girls and women in America.