Doing Good and Giving Back

Higher education needs more friends like Robert Owen Carr.

Fifty plus years ago Carr attended Lockport Township High School in rural Illinois. Thanks to a nomination from a high school counselor, Carr won $250 from a local woman’s club. The award made a big difference. Carr’s family of nine – six children, grandmother and two parents – were financially strapped but did not think of themselves as poor. The funds and recognition propelled Carr to the University of Illinois. He sped through an undergraduate degree in mathematics, added a master’s in computer science, and did it all while working to cover costs. Carr washed dishes for the university and then managed a local Arby’s.

Parkland Community College hired Carr to run their computer center soon after he graduated. He was elected faculty president, worked at a local bank, and remained ambitious. By age twenty-six, he decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship. He eventually founded Heartland Payment Systems, an extremely profitable business financial services firm. Now a wealthy man, Carr has consistently thought of others and is a generous donor. He created the Give Something Back foundation, which provides scholarships and mentoring to low-income students. That charity is at the heart of his philanthropy.

Carr wants people to recognize the value of education, and in particular, he believes that the message needs to reach those with less means and the institutions that enroll them. His book, Working Class to College: The Promise and Peril Facing Blue-Collar America (written with Dirk Johnson), tells Carr’s story and stories of the people he has helped along the way. Carr is closely attuned to the challenges of funding a college education when a family does not have much money. He is concerned about the many ways that rising tuition and fees make college unaffordable. Carr believes that rising student debt is a burden on students, their families, and the larger economy. Working Class to College looks at these issues from the perspective of someone who was able to navigate the system – and knows that it is no easy task. Carr realizes, too, that times have changed. Working one’s way through college is much more difficult.

It is this viewpoint – a successful product of higher education who understands how money makes college completion possible – that is helpful here. Working Class to College references relevant scholarships and reports, but Carr is not making a social science argument. His prose is informal. He is writing to motivate students to be intentional about their education. Carr makes many sensible recommendations: taking college courses in high school, looking for scholarships and aid, finding mentors, being very careful about taking on debt, choosing majors thoughtfully, and enrolling in community colleges to keep college costs low. Student histories illustrate the value of these strategies – and the unfortunate consequences of not doing so.

Carr’s suggestions are not just for students. Colleges, universities and high schools can take notes. Most institutions, for example, can do a better job offering students help with financial planning and budgeting. Too often we tend to give students help with our institution and not with the larger higher education landscape.

Carr’s mission is to give back. For that and more, he deserves our thanks and consideration.

David Potash



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