Community Spotlight with Tom Ahart, Director of College Success Services at Graduate! Philadelphia
Every so often, we bring the spotlight to one community within the Network so that you can continue to learn about the background, interests, and insights of your peers. This week, read about Tom and his work as Director of College Success Services at Graduate! Philadelphia.
Tom Ahart joined Graduate! Philadelphia in 2015 with over 25 years of experience serving students in higher education settings. A native of Western Massachusetts, Tom has made his home here in the Philadelphia region and has connections to many colleges in the area. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts from St. Lawrence University, a master’s in Student Affairs Administration from Alfred University and an MBA from Temple University.
Tom is particularly interested in how higher education is adapting to meet the needs of today’s college students, the majority of whom are adult learners. “The most important step of all is the first one!”
What inspires you to do this work?
I love helping people realize that completing their education is possible, and then seeing them do it. To those of us with a background in Higher Education, many of the processes involved in returning to college seem easy to understand and undertake, but to an adult who has not been in college for a while, they seem insurmountable. What I’ve often seen is that once the Comebacker overcomes the first obstacle, it takes no time at all for them to deal with the remaining issues. We frequently hear from Comebackers after they graduate thanking us for our support – even as we celebrate them! Our work seems easy compared to what they have to do to earn a degree.
What is the biggest challenge you are currently facing?
One of the most significant challenges we are facing is finding ways to help people deal with financial barriers. It is difficult enough to encourage people to take out loans for education when there is so much public discussion around defaulted loans and the increasingly high cost of going to college. We are discovering that in addition to those issues, we have many Comebackers who stopped out of their college careers because of a major life challenge and who can’t get back into school because they owe money directly to their institution or to a collection agency. Current financial aid and institutional policies do not support Comebackers very well, and this is a very big area of concern for us.
What is your next goal? How do you plan to tackle it?
Our next goal is to find a way to help Comebackers with prior institutional balances and even defaulted loans access low-cost loans so they can get back to school sooner. One attractive option is an Individual Development Account (IDA). IDAs are matching funds programs designed to help people with low incomes save money specifically for college, and increase the amount they receive through the program’s matching funds. Some programs offer a 1:4 match! In Philadelphia, these programs are administered by the United Way and a non-profit consumer credit bureau.