Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1960s and '70s, Odell Cleveland leveraged his basketball skills to land a college scholarship. The 6-foot-3 Cleveland would go on to earn a place in the University of South Carolina Upstate's Athletics Hall of Fame.
"I'm one of those individuals who came from just a poor, poor background, and because at the time I was able to play sports in America, I was able to go to college, get an education. I saw that education itself helped turn my life around," said Cleveland, now chief administrative officer at the 4,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In addition to his church role, Cleveland chairs the advisory board for the college completion initiative Degrees Matter!, which receives funding from the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based nonprofit that tries to get more students enrolled in college.
He's not the only one who thinks that houses of worship can partner with local postsecondary schools to preach the importance of higher education.
Those partnerships are a reoccuring theme in several of the nearly 60 cities — including Greensboro, North Carolina, which for the last four years have been competing for a $1 million prize for most significantly boosting their college completion rates, said Noel Harmon, the national director of Talent Dividend, the name of the competition.
The program is a project of the national nonprofit CEOs for Cities, whose mission focuses on the "bottom up" change happening in cities as federal and state governments languish in "hyper-partisan and dysfunctional" behavior. The winner, which will be announced Oct. 29, will be the city that most increased the number of college degrees awarded, on average, per 1,000 residents over a four-year span.
The value of an education
The competition comes at a time when college costs continue to soar, and the value of postsecondary degrees are being hotly debated on a national level. President Obama has set a national goal of being the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.
But others, such as PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel — whose eponymous fellowship awards young people $100,000 grants to drop out of college — are recommending professional pathways that skip college. Vocational training, the argument goes, carries many pathways, which need not pass through college campuses, as several high-profile executives have proven.
Harmon, of Talent Dividend, said there's a direct link between the economic prosperity of a city and its college graduation rates, and that resonates with Odell, as well. Congregants at his church and other houses of worship can help their peers by introducing accountability, he says.
"Every Sunday, they see you. Every Wednesday, they see you. They say, 'How's it going?' 'What can we do to help?' That's a big deal," he said. "One thing that we do well is we give people hope — not a false sense of hope, but hope. What we are trying to say is, 'Listen. You can do this.' And what we would say as a Christian Baptist organization is, 'We can do it with God on your side.'"
To that end, Cleveland is working with Degrees Matter!, the partnership between the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Opportunity Greensboro and the United Way of Greater Greensboro, to point congregants to local degree programs which are likely to be a good fit. Degrees Matter! works with North Carolina A&T State University, Guilford Technical Community College, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Guilford College, Greensboro College and High Point University.
Churches can also help would-be students purchase books, pay tuition and arrange childcare, according to Cleveland, who uses a military metaphor to explain how he views dropping out of college. "We just don't want to leave any wounded soldiers on the battlefield," he said.
That's consistent with what Damita Rhodie, a single mom in Greensboro, has found. When life and college collided for Rhodie, she had to put her speech communications studies on hold to care for a sick child. She told herself at the time that she would re-enroll when her two daughters started grade school.
"I want to finish my degree around the time my son graduates high school, and he is now in the 10th grade," said Rhodie, who is a clinic front office representative at a Greensboro medical center.
How churches are helping
Rhodie anticipates that her church will assist with early planning stages of mapping our her degree and day-care assistance in the evenings when she has class in a pinch, and also will "just overall be there for that support to make sure all is well throughout the journey." Support, she said, can go a long way.
With rising college costs taking their toll even on middle-class families, partnerships between municipalities and groups like churches to close that gap are increasingly important, said James T. Minor, deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education.
"It's a trend that we are seeing around the country, and one that the department has encouraged because it's necessary," Minor said
Minor, who formerly directed the higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation, a non-profit that works particularly with low-income students and students of color, said another trend is public-private partnerships not only over affordability, but also academic, social and cultural preparation.
Religious communities that encourage their flocks to pursue education, he said, are the rule rather than the exception. "Some do it better than others. Some are more organized than others. And some have direct relationships to colleges and universities. But I think all of them, if you lump them together, come out very, very supportive of higher education," he said.
And increasingly, according to Minor, religious communities are looking at their members holistically.
"If you are high on the religiosity scale, but you can't pay rent, or you can't buy diapers for your kid, or you can't put gas in your car, you're not whole," he said. "Education is such a powerful pathway to making whole many of these other areas in your life."
The link between church life and higher education
Robert Franklin, the Laney chair in moral leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, agrees that it is "quite natural" for religious institutions, which have long sponsored academic institutions, to promote college attendance and completion.
"Recall that Harvard College, America's first higher educational institution, was founded to produce a 'learned clergy,'" he said.
The link between church attendance and college completion is significant in African-American religious communities, according to Franklin, who also directs the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution.
In African American churches, "elaborate celebratory graduation ceremonies are common," he said. "However, they have not been as aggressive as they could in recent years."
Instead, according to Franklin, churches have become overwhelmed by poverty and urban crises. "During the Great Recession, congregations have focused on raising scholarships for college admission and persistence. Now, they must expand the focus to completion as an explicit goal," he said.
The numbers here are important, according to Franklin. While there are about 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, there are easily about 100 times that number of houses of worship — about 350,000. "Why," he asked, "has it taken so long to mobilize them for higher education purposes?"
One challenge, according to Cleveland, the Mount Zion Baptist pastor, could be stigma in certain religious communities toward higher education, which can be viewed as threatening to religious belief. When Cleveland went to seminary, the preacher at his church told him to be careful not to lose his training.
Cleveland believes that education can expose religious people to new ideas, which will trickle down in many ways which benefit the community. But that doesn’t mean one doesn’t need to be cautious, he said.
"You don’t want your mind to be so open that your brains fall out."
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was published in July by Cascade Books.