A matter of degree: Dick George is making college dreams come true

Trying to separate Dick George the person from Dick George the longtime chair, president, and CEO of Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. can prove challenging.

Born and raised in New York City, education was different back in his day, the 70-year-old said. The high school he attended had special progress classes allowing students to advance as many as two grades ahead of their age group by testing out. As a result, George was just 16 when he started as a freshman at Cornell University in upstate New York — when both the drinking and driving ages were 18!

“Where [and when] I went to school, everyone was expected to graduate and go to college,” he noted. “This was a group whose parents grew up in the Depression. There was never this expectation that if you didn’t succeed, someone would take care of you. If you didn’t succeed, you’d be in trouble.

“There’s been some abdication of the concept of personal responsibility. Education then was the pathway, a pure meritocracy. As you distinguish yourself academically, positive things happen. I’m not convinced it works that way anymore.”

The philanthropic Great Lakes Higher Education Corp.’s mission is to bolster minority or disadvantaged students’ access to college education. While it is not a lender, the 501(c)3 nonprofit doles out money to organizations that can have an immediate, ground-level impact toward that end.

It has distributed more than $100 million in grants to improve communities through education and to make college a reality for disadvantaged students. Recently, Great Lakes awarded $5.2 million in new grants to 40 four-year colleges and universities in four states. The funds will be used to create paid internships at local businesses and nonprofits for students receiving financial aid.

“We’re primarily committed to low-income, first-generation, and minority families and students,” George said. Going hand in hand with this mission is the issue of student loan repayment. One of the largest student loan providers and guarantors in the country, Great Lakes also services nearly $200 billion in student loans for about 9 million borrowers.

“The biggest problem today in the student loan space are those students who don’t complete [college]. If you borrow and don’t finish and don’t get a degree, you don’t have the income realization that you borrowed the money for. So we spend a lot of our time and effort on working with students, families, and borrowers to explain what it means to borrow, how you build a budget and repayment plan, and helping students persist to a successful completion.”

Unfortunately, he explains, far too many students are unprepared and therefore do remedial coursework, where the success rate, particularly in math, is dismal. So Great Lakes is working with the Carnegie Foundation and others to develop new ways to teach remedial courses that result in higher graduation rates.

“I look at education as the only way we can maintain social mobility in this country,” George said. “If we can’t offer at least a view that there is a hope of social mobility through education, then we have a far greater problem than any we see out there.”

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Has there been improvement in the past 20 years? “The jury is still out,” George admitted. While there are far more low-income minority students in post-secondary education today than ever before, “the question is, are they prepared and will they succeed, or are we putting people in a position to fail by virtue of our K-12 system, particularly in major urban centers, not adequately preparing them? It’s a fundamental issue.

“In many respects, it’s also a social issue. We’re asking schools to do things today that they were never intended to do. So many of these kids don’t have intact families. Some don’t have homes. We see kids who have four to five addresses in a single term. How we expect them to be adequately prepared for an educational experience is of extreme difficulty. First, you have to fix the social issues.”

George wrestles with these matters every day.

To clear his head, he’ll often find respite in a good run, a game of golf, or boating. “I can’t hit a 3-wood, and I can’t putt,” he admits, but he loves trying. He also ran in the very first Crazy Legs race in Madison. In fact, the T-shirt for that inaugural race was designed in his garage.

With an energy level that belies his age, it appears George has no interest in retiring. So where does he want to be 10 years from now?

“I want to be upright,” he said, smiling.

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