Dante Cantu
Dante Cantu, Director of the Center of Student Success and HEOP Director. (Photo by Mount Saint Mary College)

by Danangelowe Spencer

It is impossible to argue that the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) is not one of the most successful programs in the sphere of higher education, but with rising tuition costs, the burden of college expenses must now be more proportionally split between individual universities and government. Without government funding, many of these programs will be cut.

HEOP, established in 1969, was put in place to help students who are educationally and financially disadvantaged get a college education. This program is a joint effort between New York State and the independent colleges and universities.

According to the 2012-2013 facts sheet published by the New York State Education Department (NYSED), there are 56 HEOP programs at 52 independent colleges and universities. The article also stated that the HEOP program has served over 4,000 disadvantaged youths. Among these students, 32% were black, 35% were Hispanic, 13% were Asian, 10% Caucasian, and less than 1% Native American.

The HEOP program is successful both academically and non-academically. According to the NYSED, 59% of HEOP freshmen graduate, surpassing the national graduation rate of 52%. Seventy-five percent of these graduates move on to professional education, graduate schools, or are employed soon after graduation.

This type of academic success can also be found at Mount Saint Mary College (MSMC). According to an interview with Laurie Orr, the former Assistant Director of Academics for HEOP, these students are the highest academic achievers on campus.

According to the Freshmen Cohort Outcome comparison by HEOP, the students in the program earned the highest overall grade point average (GPA) for the past five years. MSMC HEOP students also have the greatest retention and graduation rate when compared to non-HEOP students both campus and state-wide.

MSMC HEOP students are not just achievers in the classroom. They can be found in several leadership positions within clubs and the Student Government Association on campus. According to Orr, HEOP “students are vibrant and add to the dynamics of this campus. Without these students, the campus would not be the same.”

On a more personal level, I can attest to the HEOP tradition of developing well-rounded students and strong leaders. Prior to college I did not readily become involved in co-curricular activities. However, being in HEOP has taught me how to develop both academically and personally, allowing me to channel my leadership skills in a more productive fashion. This program has also allowed me to use these skills on a larger scale and gain greater interpersonal confidence. I agree with Orr that HEOP in an opportunity for students with potential to achieve, who would not otherwise do so.

With the rising cost of tuition and the constant cutbacks by the government, opportunity programs like HEOP may not be around much longer. According to Orr, the government has been cutting back on its funding towards higher education since 1995, leaving the larger portion of financial aid money and distribution to the colleges.

Tamar Lewin, in his article “Financing for Colleges Declines as Cost Rises,” mentions how tuition is on the rise due to higher prices and increased enrollment. He indicates there is a “long-term trend of shifting the cost of higher education from the public onto individual students and their families.” With these scenarios and actions, it is clear a student like me, with academic potential and without funds, will no longer have the opportunity to attend college or pursue a higher education. If a student decides to pursue a higher education despite lack of financial aid, he or she will have to take out a significant amount of loans. For anyone who is familiar with student loans, I am sure you know about their unbearable interest rates and monthly payments.

Higher education is becoming less accessible to the underserved population. With rising cost in tuition and the cut backs in government funding. HEOP is needed to assist our underserved population. With the support of the government, HEOP will continue developing great leaders for the future.

It is statistically proven that HEOP brings nothing less than great academic achievers and leaders to the sphere of higher education. HEOP develops people for the future, not only with a college degree but also with the necessary skills needed that are not taught in the classroom. Though it is difficult to add any more opportunity programs like HEOP in this economy, government funding is needed for the preservation of HEOP, not only at MSMC, but state-wide.

As the unofficial slogan states, “HEOP works!” Why change what is working?