PROVIDENCE, RI – Thousands of college students celebrate completing their degrees this week at Rhode Island state colleges and universities. But many of their peers won't be with them. Even at the most selective state school, the University of Rhode Island, the graduation rate is just 63 percent.
We begin a series looking at what happens to the students who didn't finish their degrees...examining the challenges they face in today's economy and why they gave up on college in the first place.
We start with a profile of a Central Falls resident who dropped out of college five years ago to raise his son. Now he's struggling to revive his dream of becoming a professional football player.
Kashief Montgomery works out every day with a personal trainer. Sports have always been a big priority for him.
"When I was comin' outta high school, you know, the grades wasn't too good," Montgomery says. "Cause in High School it was just sports. I was backwards. Sports, and then school after."
Kashief or chief as his trainer calls him played football and basketball at Central Falls High School. He did a minimum of schoolwork - just enough to avoid getting kicked off the team. Here's how he describes his mindset back then.
"Young, man. Just all into sports, girls, typical teenager," he says. "And it kinda side-tracked me a lot. When you first come to school in September, its football season. So you know, you do what enough to get by to stay on the team. I just never really focused on school."
Then out of nowhere something happened that changed his attitude about high school. "I got called down to the office," he says. "I thought I was in trouble."
He wasn't in trouble...just his chances at college and professional sports. So someone Montgomery didn't really know placed a call to Central Falls High School, and told them to pull him out of class.
"They're like yeah, you gotta go to the mayor's office," he describes. " I'm like the mayor? That kinda shocked me. So I went down to the mayor's office, I met hime and then we just talked we became real cool."
Then-Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau took Montgomery under his wing, making sure he graduated from high school. The two are so close, Montgomery calls him "Chuck."
"He kinda helped me, my parents, Chuck." Montgomery says. "Like afterschool I would go to his office, I would sit there, do all my homework, I would get all the extra credit, everything. He just made sure it was like we gotta get this kid graduated, we gotta get this kid moving."
It made a difference. Montgomery ended up with a full scholarship to Dean College, a small residential school in Massachusetts. Montgomery was the first of his parents and six siblings to go to college, there was just one problem. At around the same time he got into Dean, his girlfriend got pregnant.
"Then the baby's doctor's appointments and a lotta stuff that the parents need to be there for," Montgomery says. "And I didn't want to put all the weight on her shoulders to raise a kid by herself."
The situation at home made it hard for Montgomery to latch onto college life, and after a year at Dean, he dropped out. It turns out, that's not so unusual. Most students who leave college do it within the first couple of years, and at Dean fewer than 40% of students actually graduate.
Freeman Hrabowski heads the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus, where he's put a lot of thought into improving graduation rates.
"If the student comes and goes to class and doesn't meet other people, doesn't get into a group, the student is more likely to be pulled away from the campus," Hrabowski says.
Hrabowksi says first year students often feel a sense of social isolation, and that can be even worse for minority students. Just 20% of African-Americans in the United States have a college degree.
"If a student is from a background where no one has ever gone to college," Hrabowski begins, "whether the student is white, asian Hispanic, black, doesn't matter, the student may not have become acclimated to the environment, the family may not have known what to do to get that student ready for it and the student can feel very much out of place."
Montgomery says he just didn't feel comfortable being in school while his his girlfriend was left to raise their son. So he got a job with the city of Central Falls thanks to his connections in the mayor's office, and figured he'd have time for school later on. That was about five years ago. Montgomery now has a second son.
"Don't let your talent go to waste, that's all I hear, don't let your talent go to waste like everybody else," Montgomery says. "The kids? You always have babysitters, so stop focusing on your kids and go to school."
Hoping for another chance at college and the NFL, at 23 years old, Montgomery signed up to play football last year at Virginia University at Lynchburg. The school is 99 percent black and claims that all of its freshmen students return for a second year. Unfortunately for Montgomery, the football program was on the rocks.
"Like we didn't even have a game yet and they was ready to shut the program down," he says. "Why? They got a little incident, a big shooting over there. So I'm like listen, I don't have time for this. I got two boys at home."
On top of that, a close friend had a terrible car crash. He lost both of his legs and nearly died. For Montgomery, this was a wakeup call. Now almost 25, he worried that his dreams of professional football might be slipping away.
"He was supposed to be with me right now doing this, training for the NFL," Montgomery says. "And then to see that just taken away from him so easy, so fast? Right there I was just like, these bump in the roads are just too many piling up one after another after another. Actually I think it was a sign."
Montgomery took it as a sign he should focus on the NFL, so he left college again, and now he works out with trainer Lorenzo Perry at this Providence community center.
Montgomery lies on his back, lifting two enormous weights. It's a light day, Perry says, just 225 pounds.
"We're doing bench press right now which really works on his upper body explosiveness, developing his upper body strength," Perry explains. "This is basically one of the typical tests that you usually find at an NFL combine."
Montgomery wowed the scouts with an exercise just like this at an NFL pro-day at Brown University. After that, his agent got calls from eight or nine teams, boosting hopes that he might still have a shot at professional football.
"My agent calls me like Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Browns," Montgomery says. "Like they was excited. And it shocked me. For them to be interested in me, blew my mind. I probably called everybody in my phone."
Despite the interest, no NFL teams invited Montgomery to try outs, so this week, he plans to work out with some scouts from the Canadian Football League. Montgomery thinks he would be a professional athlete already, if he had just worked harder in high school and gotten into a better university.
"Everything that they told me? Is the truth," he says. "So they tried. They tried, I just didn't listen. Like they tell you, you don't listen now, you're gonna listen later, and now I know exactly what they're talking about."
Now, he tells kids on the playing field not to make the same mistakes he did. Even if gets to play professional football, he'll probably only last about 10 years assuming no injuries or other family issues get in the way. And when it comes to life after football, Montgomery still won't have a college degree.
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