General Education

Free Global High Schools for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

Free Global High Schools for High-Achieving, Low-Income Students
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Amy Yvette Garrou profile
Amy Yvette Garrou February 3, 2016

Calls for education equity and world-schooling opportunities are coming together in a surprising way: United World College high schools offer high-achieving, low-income students free global service-learning opportunities.

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Researchers have recently reconfirmed what has long been known: Low-income students do not have as many college-prep opportunities as their more affluent peers.

A recent Harvard Graduate School of Education report points to the urgent need for students from low-income backgrounds to have access to high school education options that offer adequate preparation for postsecondary success.

At the same time, the popularity of world-schooling has grown substantially — and its potential benefits are huge in this increasingly connected digital age.

While the two concepts (education equity and world-schooling) may seem unrelated, they are coming together in a surprising way. The problem of inadequate access to quality secondary education is in part being addressed with an unlikely solution: a global group of high schools that many students attend for free.

United World Colleges, or UWCs for short, are a worldwide network that enrolls — and often funds — global cohorts of students. Its aim is to “make education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future." The 15 UWC schools (including one in the U.S.), established for students in grades 11 and 12, offer International Baccalaureate (IB) diplomas. The program refers to these schools as “colleges" in the British sense (meaning university-preparatory programs); they are not four-year undergraduate institutions.

The program was conceived by the German education reformer Kurt Hahn, founder of the Outward Bound program of experiential education. Not surprisingly, the UWC schools incorporated elements of experiential learning into their curricula. The first such school (UWC–Atlantic College) opened in 1962 in Wales. Hahn envisioned students stretching their personal limits, both academically and socially, by studying intensively and engaging in challenging service projects. For example, students at Atlantic College participated in ocean rescue missions. Similarly, students now at the UWC–USA campus lead overnight treks and administer first aid as part of their “Wilderness" activity.

Besides their unique focus on experiential education alongside rigorous academics, the UWC schools also stand out for their commitment to diversity — in bringing together young people not only from across the world, but also from different backgrounds within the same country or region. The goal of such integration is to encourage students to learn from and work alongside one another to avert future conflicts. Hahn — who had worked in the German government pre–World War II, was imprisoned by Hitler in 1933, and was subsequently exiled to the United Kingdom — realized the potential for change if young people came together to appreciate rather than distrust their geographical neighbors. At UWCs, then, students from Tibet and China, or from Israel and Palestine, are sometimes roommates. By the same token, students from Kashmir often listen to, and inform, their countrymates from India. Students from Iraq and Afghanistan similarly attend class with students from the United States. (As the college counselor at UWC–Mahindra College from 2003–2006, I experienced all of these things as I lived and worked on campus 24/7.)

The selection process is as unique as UWC itself. Students are typically selected by application to a national committee in their home country, based not only on their academic excellence but also their commitment to service and their desire to engage with the larger world. A priority of UWC selection committees is to include students who are from underserved, low-income, and minority backgrounds. Many successful applicants are students who have done all they can given the limits of their high schools: They’ve exhausted the academic offerings and made an impact on others through service at home, at school, or in the community. UWC schools actively seek to enroll students who have not had opportunities to meet others from their own or other countries, and who possess a desire to change the world.

One of the UWC high schools, UWC–USA, is located in rural New Mexico, in a tiny hamlet called Montezuma, an hour east of Santa Fe. It is the only UWC school in the U.S.; of the 50 American students who enroll in UWC schools for free each year, 25 attend this New Mexico school, and the other 25 matriculate across the remaining 14 campuses. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the U.S. selection committee, which chooses 50 American students each year; these students each receive a full scholarship to attend UWC–USA or one of the other 14 UWC high schools.)

The UWC scholarships are currently merit-based (meaning that they consider academic achievement and service), though they also take into account a student's socioeconomic context, life experiences, and potential to make the most of this opportunity. Scholarships for U.S. citizens and permanent residents are funded by an American donor, Shelby Davis, who not only funds the UWC high school scholarships, but also provides millions of dollars of financial aid to more than 90 U.S. colleges for UWC graduates who qualify for admission.

Being selected to attend a UWC, in other words, is a little-known opportunity for high-achieving, low-income students to attain a top high school education. While there are more options at the college level for high-achieving students (e.g., the Posse Scholars Program), UWC schools present an uncommon opportunity for ambitious high schoolers to change — and be changed by — the world.

In the process, students attain the college prep they need. The schools’ focus on service, moreover, aligns with the recently released Harvard admissions recommendations, which propose that colleges lessen their focus on intense academics and one-off community-service activities in favor of sustained experiences and demonstrations of compassion. Students may apply to attend a UWC high school by visiting this website.

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