Two students of color studying together on a grassy hill on a university campus.
Image credit: Keira Burton on Pexels

For Earl Martin Phalen, a crucial part of leadership is giving back and paying it forward to those coming behind him. Placed into foster care after being born to a single mother, Phalen came into this world at a time when a front-page article in the Boston Globe claimed that 70 percent of Black boys in the Massachusetts foster care system would end up in prison by the time they were 21.

Phalen, however, beat these odds. With the support of people like his social worker and adoptive parents, he went on to attend Harvard University and law school at Yale University. Now, as the president and CEO of Great Jobs KC—a Kansas City nonprofit that provides resources for students and adults to attend college or receive employment training—Phalen helps others beat the odds as well.

“A scholar is somebody who uses their intellectual ability, who taps into their brain power…and that’s not how many people think of our kids.”

As he reflects on how his background inspires him to do the work at Great Jobs KC, Phalen remembers one Sunday night when he was a student at Yale. A former high school athlete, Phalen wanted to go play basketball that night. When he mentioned it to his friends, they looked at him strangely and reminded him that they needed to go study.

This seemingly mundane interaction helped shape Phalen’s understanding that he should apply the same to any of his goals. Just as he would practice for hours to become a skilled athlete, he should study for hours to become a scholar. Through his work today, he teaches youth, many of whom are often overlooked because they come from underresourced communities, that they can also be scholars.

“A scholar is somebody who uses their intellectual ability, who taps into their brain power, who has a thirst for knowledge and a thirst for information, who is a critical thinker—and that’s not how many people think of our kids,” Phalen said in an interview with NPQ.

Phalen intentionally refers to students as scholars because he wants them to understand that that is what they can be. Often, he notes, students don’t believe that they are smart, so they might try less in school. Great Jobs KC helps students combat this narrative and understand that they can reach their full potential.

In Support of Scholars

Through its scholarship program—KC Scholars—Great Jobs KC has awarded nearly 10,000 scholarships since it was first founded in 2016. The program includes a 9th grade College Savings scholarship, where students in their first year of high school receive a one-to-one match of funds of up to $1,400 to use toward college. The Traditional scholarship is granted to eligible 11th grade students, providing up to $50,000 paid directly to the student’s college for up to six years. Then, there is the Adult Learner Scholarship for those who seek to complete or begin a bachelor’s degree. These scholarships are also paid directly to the college for up to six years.

Schools like Harvard and Yale have billions of dollars in their endowments but still charge high fees for tuition and room and board.

Last month alone, KC Scholars awarded over $48 million in scholarships to 1,210 students. Phalen notes that most of the scholarship recipients are first-generation college students, and most come from low-income families. Many of them walk onto the campuses with far fewer resources than their classmates, but Great Jobs KC is intentional about reminding them that they belong.

The organization connects incoming first-year students to other young scholars who have been where they are and can offer them advice and skills. The group also has an ambassadors program wherein each student has a one-on-one advocate who checks in with them regularly.

Phalen shares the story of one scholarship recipient who now serves as an ambassador. Before beginning at his college this student and his family navigated housing instability. In fact, the first time he had a bed to himself was during his first-year orientation.

Although he initially did not take the idea of going to college seriously, during his 9th grade year he had a conversation with his principal, who reminded him that going to college might be his chance to get off the streets and set a new path for his future. That is exactly what he did. Now a junior in college, he is continuing to excel with a 3.4 GPA.

This is just one student’s story and a testament to what students can accomplish when granted the resources and support. Still, Phalen understands that there is always more work to be done and more resources needed.

He notes that this year, in addition to over 1,200 students who received scholarships, another 1,000 students applied and were eligible—but there were not enough funds to go around. As proud as he is of this year’s recipients, Phalen says he is equally passionate about ensuring that next year anyone who qualifies will have the opportunity to realize their dream of attending college.

“Our organization’s name is Great Jobs because we’re going to help you get great jobs.”

The Call for Lower Tuition

Great Jobs KC scholarship recipients have a higher graduation rate than other low-income and first-generation students across the country. Still, Phalen notes that even those who are rewarded scholarships often end up incurring debt because of the expenses that come with seeking higher education. Too often, students end up stopping out of college, largely because they do not have the resources to continue.

Phalen is a vocal proponent of policy solutions to address this problem. Noting that schools like Harvard and Yale have billions of dollars in their endowments but still charge high fees for tuition and room and board, Phalen says it’s critical that schools lower tuition or provide programs to fully subsidize tuition.

In addition to the fact that there often are not enough resources to go around, Phalen believes that the decisions of those who choose to not go to college are often undervalued.

Working with students firsthand, he has come to understand that there are many reasons why 50 percent of students in the metro Kansas City area may decide not to go to college.

“We created the Great Jobs program to make sure that the young people who choose a career right out of high school are actually getting certifications in careers to allow for good pay and career advancement,” he said. “Our organization’s name is Great Jobs because we’re going to help you get great jobs.”