Photo of Patrick O'Donnell smiling with blurred background and blue box with white text that says investing in the next generation of leaders
CEO Patrick O’Donnell

The demand for college graduates is growing. Let’s meet the demand – without all the student debt.

by Patrick O’Donnell

Making Waves Education Foundation » News Stories » The demand for college graduates is growing. Let’s meet the demand – without all the student debt.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Making Waves Academy seniors’ applications to our college and career success program. Students who join the program will receive up to six years of scholarships, budget planning, coaching, and career programming on their path to earning their college degrees.

The applications are so inspiring. Students describe clear visions for their futures – they’re excited to make new friends on campus, pursue their academic and career passions, recycle their success by giving back to their communities, study abroad, and earn college degrees so they can better support their families.

And yet, so many applicants simultaneously express caution: college is so expensive; should they attend or take a different path? 

They are not alone. The debate around the value of a college degree is fierce.   

Let’s have that debate, especially since frustration with the cost of college is valid; however, abandoning college as a high-impact postsecondary pathway is not the answer.

It’s essential that we support more first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds to attend and graduate with their bachelor’s degree for several reasons: 

We need to build the pipeline of college graduates; we just need to do this in a way that doesn’t saddle college grads with debt.

The cost of college has increased significantly over the past two decades. Mounting student loan debt, totaling $1.6 trillion, particularly affects Black and Latinx college graduates; their level of debt often erases the benefit of the higher salaries they achieved with their bachelor’s degree.

We need to solve this problem and renew the value proposition of higher education.

At Making Waves, we know a different reality is possible because 85% of the graduates in our college and career success program – all students from low-income backgrounds and students of color – graduate from college with zero debt.

For our students, this is so powerful. They graduate with the financial freedom to choose a job that matches their passion and purpose, to build wealth, and to support their families. They are positioned to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and more fully lead in their personal, professional, and civic lives.

Three women posing for photo together smiling
Left to right: Ashley Allston, a college coach at Making Waves, with two of her students, Doris Martinez who graduated debt-free from UC Berkeley and started a job at Ernst & Young, and Jacqueline Salguera, who attends UC Berkeley.

How do we make this possible for all students in California?

There’s no silver bullet, but solutions exist. Achieving this outcome at scale will require all stakeholders in the education ecosystem to play a role – high schools, colleges, nonprofits, policy makers, and philanthropy.   

At Making Waves, we offer tailored guidance to high school seniors and their families for each college acceptance. By weighing the financial aid options alongside academic and personal goals, students can avoid substantial loans and make informed decisions. This is high-touch support.

With only 29% of public high schools offering college counseling, innovative approaches and leveraging technology are essential to scaling support. Making Waves’ AI-powered college and career advisor aims to close this college counseling gap. Tools like the College Board’s Net Price Calculator and MoneyThink’s DecidED are also doing interesting work in this space.  

While government grants like the Pell Grant cover a significant portion of financial aid, scholarships from nonprofits and philanthropy can quickly fill gaps left by slower-moving government grants. It’s so important these scholarships are renewable so students avoid scholarship funding cliffs, which often force students to drop out, risking debt without a degree.

These scholarships should also cover expenses beyond tuition, such as housing, food, textbooks, laptops, and transportation, which can be as prohibitive as tuition for students from low-income backgrounds. We provide renewable, beyond tuition scholarships at Making Waves, and we’re excited to see other nonprofits and philanthropists like Richmond Promise, College Track, and Chime Scholars Foundation also taking this approach.  

Without question, we need to tackle the rising cost of college. Congress is currently debating new approaches as part of its work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Bipartisan Policy Center proposes the creation of federal block grants to incentivize states to invest in higher education, potentially reducing expenses for students, especially for low- and middle-income students.

States could also encourage colleges to adopt competency-based degree programs allowing students to learn at their own pace, reducing costs associated with traditional seat-time requirements. Additionally, creating affordable housing for college students could alleviate the need for student loans to cover housing expenses.   

The California State University system recently shared that the gap in graduation rates between low-income and higher-income students increased to 12 percentage points. Many low-income students take more than four years to graduate which increases their costs.

Colleges can reduce costs for low-income students by ensuring timely paths to completion; the Lumina Foundation recommends a multi-pronged approach including using data to understand the student experience to then tailor supports and automatically providing support services to students unless they opt-out. Colleges can also partner with nonprofits, like Making Waves, to provide coaching to students to help them navigate a path to on-time graduation.  

Investing in the next generation of leaders

Higher education continues to be the most powerful lever for increased earning power and access to leadership roles for first-gen students from low-income backgrounds.

If we are to realize the promise of our education system, we must create the conditions for students to earn their bachelor’s degree debt-free, break the cycle of poverty in communities, and take on the leadership roles needed for the Bay Area and California to thrive.

Guadalupe Ortega is one of the 85% of Making Waves college students who graduated completely debt-free. Guadalupe joined our Making Waves community in 5th grade when she enrolled in Making Waves Academy.   

When Guadalupe was a senior in high school, she and her family received guidance from Making Waves to help her select a college that was the right financial fit. She then earned a renewable scholarship, along with coaching and budget planning support, from Making Waves Education Foundation. Earlier this year, she graduated from UC Davis and started a job at JPMorgan Chase.

Photo of Guadalupe in graduation stole next to quote that says I was able to graduate without any student loans! I'm now able to focus on investing my money.

“I was able to graduate without any student loans! Entering the workforce, I am now able to focus on investing my money, and I am excited about becoming financially stable,” Guadalupe shared.   

Guadalupe’s experience should not be an anomaly. 

Patrick O’Donnell

Chief Executive Officer
About Making Waves Education Foundation

At Making Waves, we are committed to educational equity. Making Waves Education Foundation is a Bay Area nonprofit that supports Making Waves Academy – a public charter school with more than 1,100 5th through 12th grade students – and leads college and career programming with more than 430 college students.​

Knowing the opportunities that come with a college degree, we partner with historically underrepresented and underserved students to help make college affordable and graduation attainable. Centering the journeys of our students, our personalized approach includes college and career coaching, scholarships, and financial planning.​

Our alumni network includes more than 730 college graduates, who earn their degrees and land jobs at more than twice the rate of their first-generation, low-income peers, with 85% graduating debt-free.

Related News and Resources