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A Horrifying Look At How Many Students Fall Through The Cracks – And What We Can Do About It

It’s much easier to get an education if the systems in your life provide flexibility and grace. If you can get time off work when you need it, can afford a new computer when an old one breaks, if you can get healthcare when you need it, and you don’t have to worry about whether the things you do today might mean you’re homeless tomorrow.

But when the systems in your life work against you, when any small breakdown can suddenly spiral into a major crisis, then getting a college education becomes an ordeal. It may even be impossible. For many people, it seems like rather than helping them when they’re down, the systems in their lives punish them every time something goes wrong.

An extraordinary new report by Bellwether Education calls this “fragmentation,” and says that it’s caused by well meaning systems in a vulnerable person’s life not being able to work together.  If one system demands that you get a form signed before it helps you, but another system won’t give you the form until you can provide evidence of need, and a third system makes it hard to get that evidence, then suddenly one crisis becomes two, or maybe three, crises.  All because the systems that are supposed to help can’t work together, and you’re caught in the middle.

Bellwether’s new website “Lost By Design,” explores how this happens with real world examples and testimonials from people whose lives have been hurt by fragmentation. It’s a powerful and important testimony.

It emphasizes the ways that fragmentation impacts children and young adults. What we want to add to the conversation is that in fact fragmentation can be a huge problem for working adults as well. 

Calbright was designed to support working adults who want to find better careers but have often fallen through the cracks.  We’ve found that one of the biggest obstacles to their education (besides tuition, which we’ve made free for California residents) is fragmentation. They are often working a job; caring for kids or elderly parents; trying to navigate the legal system or the veteran’s bureaucracy; they are often struggling to find stable housing; they can have health issues and can be tossed back and forth around the healthcare system. All of these things make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for them to focus on their education. 

This is why Calbright is designed to be both “online” and “high touch.” We offer students a number of free support services intended to reduce fragmentation: to help students who need help navigate the systems in their lives.  Just as importantly, we have designed our courses to be flexible, to be able to accomodate the life challenges that will come up for our students. Too often in higher education, students find the bureaucracy they have to navigate to be one more crisis in their lives. By offering flexibility, by being personalized and accommodating rather than another system to navigate, we support them in their goals.

Bellwether Education estimates that some 5 million children and young adults are struggling with fragmentation. When you add in working adults, it’s surely tens of millions more. It’s a problem that can be solved by putting the needs of people ahead of the needs of the systems. That’s harder than it sounds - we know - but it’s possible. It changes lives.