Opinion: Equity, Opportunity and the Return on Investment of a College Education

University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski. UMBC photo.

Talent is spread evenly across our population — across all genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. But opportunity, sadly, is not. How do you ensure that talent meets opportunity?

The answer is simple: Invest.

Every investor anticipates a return, whether they’re contributing to a 401(k), financing a new business venture or remodeling a kitchen. The same goes for investments in people. We give them our time, our money and ourselves, with the expectation that they use those gifts to produce something meaningful that adds value to our communities. And no investment provides a greater return than education.

This is particularly true for bright, determined, hard-working young people who believe a postsecondary degree is beyond their grasp. For students from low-income and marginalized communities, the college experience provides pathways to enriching careers that can end the cycle of generational poverty. If only they can get there.

This isn’t some abstract concept for me. I experienced first-hand the transformational power of a college education thanks to the CollegeBound Foundation, the Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski.

Alicia Wilson

I grew up in East Baltimore, where I attended Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. I was a smart kid, but understood little about the steps needed, academically and financially, to become college-ready. Our school had a CollegeBound office embedded on campus, and on the advice of a teacher, the foundation secured a fee waiver so I could take the SAT. I scored quite well on it. From there, CollegeBound advisors helped me fill out applications, secure scholarships and tour Maryland’s colleges on buses filled with students just like me.

It was on one such trip to UMBC that we met Dr. Hrabowski. He brought us to his office, where we ate lunch and listened to him talk about all the opportunities that awaited us — on campus and beyond. I’d been on many college visits, but none where the top leader not only noted our presence, but spoke life over our dreams.

College presidents often set their tables for big-time donors or visiting dignitaries. But Dr. Hrabowski set his table well for a bunch of kids from a tech and trade school. He didn’t care where we were from. It was clear to us that he saw our potential and respected our work ethic.

Enrolling in UMBC was life-changing. I excelled academically, which enabled me to win a highly selective Truman Scholarship and a full scholarship from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law to attend law school after graduation.

But I also engaged in experiences that expanded my world. I became campus coordinator for OXFAM, taught Korean students how to speak English and served as director of diversity affairs for the Student Government Association. All of those opportunities stemmed from my continued engagement with CollegeBound and from UMBC encouraging me to do my very best.

UMBC and Dr. Hrabowski invested in me. The CollegeBound Foundation did, too. They gave me access to a place I never dreamed I could go, then provided the support to stay there and finish—the true meaning of equity.

I urge Maryland to invest in people like me and organizations like CollegeBound and UMBC. Then watch as the returns multiply exponentially.

— ALICIA WILSON

A 2004 graduate of UMBC, the writer is board chair of the CollegeBound Foundation and vice president for economic development of the Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System.