Katja Urbatsch empowers young people with non-academic family backgrounds to start and succeed in university. She addresses the fact that few of the first high school graduates in their families consider university as a career option. Her mentoring network and information platform overcome barriers like financial concerns, social networks and low regard for the typically free German university education. By creating a positive, and provocative, identity for "working class children" (Arbeiterkind), she enables individual choices and combats social segregation.
The New Idea
Contrary to the commonly held belief that social mobility is a hallmark of modern society, children in Germany with non-academic parents are more than three times less likely to attend university compared to their peers with university graduate parents. Katja combats this trajectory by giving youth from lower income and educational backgrounds a collective identity. More importantly, she helps them overcome the specific challenges they face through a mentoring system that provides the support and information they need to obtain careers commensurate with their skill rather than their background.
Katja is working on three levels to achieve this. First, she is using the attention-grabbing label Arbeiterkind (meaning “working class child”) to give this group of adolescents an identity and a voice. Giving this group a name has created self awareness among the youngsters, sensitizing them to their roots as well as to the implications that their family backgrounds may have on their lives. In doing so, she transforms what was once a stigma into a badge of honor as kids recognize that they can be the first in their families to qualify for higher education.
Second, Katja builds up local networks of mentors to go into schools and specifically promote the possibility of attending university to pupils from families without a history of college education. These 1.300 mentors in 70 local chapters are generally university students who are the first in their families to study, but also include professors, study advisors and professionals outside university. The mentors are all keenly aware of the specific and often hidden obstacles young people face, including the complex challenge of children "overtaking" their parents, lacking financial support, and the general absence of guidance from parents.
Lastly, Katja has also created an online resource center and mentoring platform that compiles a wide range of information relevant to people starting university and provides practical how-to’s that are easy to understand.
Through direct outreach to her target group through a mentor system, the provision of information on her website, and through awareness and identity creation among underserved youth, Arbeiterkind.de systematically empowers a historically disenfranchised subset of German society. As such, it has the potential to profoundly change the composition of university students in Germany by broadening access to higher education.
In Germany, the probability of a child continuing on to higher education can be determined by looking at his or her family background. While 83 percent of all pupils with studied parents attend university, only 23 percent with non-studied parents take this path. Thus, a large group of German society is deprived of the opportunity for higher education based simply on their family history. Ultimately, this results in social segregation in an education system that ignores large numbers of potentially skilled and highly motivated students.
Despite Germany’s low enrollment rates, the nation’s university system is widely accessible compared to most other countries. After having passed the Abitur (the standard final secondary-school examinations qualifying for university entrance), nearly every field can be studied free of tuition. Furthermore, public financial support is available for students from low-income backgrounds and only has to be repaid partially, interest-free and over a long period of time.
This apparently paradoxical situation can be attributed to a number of causes. First, although German’s university system is open, young people with non-studied parents do not perceive it as such. Among these youth, university is seen as an elitist institution and is often met with high reservation. Additionally, while one can earn money immediately in an apprenticeship, university education is seen as five years without income as many choose to not take into account the lasting benefits of higher education.
A second factor that affects accessibility of education is its complicated nature. Decisions regarding what to study, where to study and how to finance it differ across subject matter and city, and help is often needed to navigate its complexities. In fact, one will often need to get help from someone who knows the system already since relevant information is hard to find and distributed primarily through channels accessible to studied individuals. Lastly, the information provided to the public about university is generally written in sophisticated language, and often only understandable with the help of studied parents or friends that have attended university themselves. Thus, successful enrollment is very closely linked to having a network of studied friends and family.
Katja’s initiative tackles many of the problems facing German higher education in a systematic manner. First, by dubbing youth with non-academic parents as Arbeiterkind, Katja gives them a positive identity within society. Through Arbeiterkind.de, children with non-studied parents become aware of the specific problems they face related to their social background, and as they meet peers confronting similar challenges, they gain confidence and self encouragement. Using the label Arbeiterkind, also helped Katja’s organization garner national attention, creating public awareness about an often unacknowledged yet systematic discrimination.
Second, Arbeiterkind.de helps to overcome the problem of a lack of accessible, comprehensible information about attending university through two approaches: a website and a mentorship program. The organization’s website provides all the information needed for a successful start at university with content specially tailored to the needs of children with non-studied parents, and hands on advice about financial support options, career prospects, organizing and planning as well as exam preparation.
In addition to the website, Arbeiterkind.de volunteering mentors go to schools and conduct information sessions to encourage and inform the pupils about the help they can offer. These mentors also support high school students that are interested in studying by providing them with arguments to overcome the disempowerment they face at home by guiding them through the maze of information, and helping them complete scholarship offers and applications.
Arbeiterkind.de’s future success will depend on Katja receiving the funding necessary to build a sustainable structure. Up until this point, Katja has developed Arbeiterkind with virtually no funding, supported by her boyfriend and brother. Now, she is currently in talks with companies and foundations about long term financing. Since she has set up a model where local groups and mentors work pro bono, her long term funding need will not be significantly high, however, in order to secure and monitor quality across the education system, significant organizational structure will be critical.
In the short time since its official launch in January 2008, over 16,000 people have used the website every month. The number of mentors has reached almost 1,000 and there are local groups in 70 cities across Germany. Arbeiterkind.de has also received several awards, including the German Engagement Prize of 2009 from Peer Steinbrück, the German Minister of Finance.
Katja is the first person in her family to earn a university degree. Although her parents and friends always supported her with her plans to attend university, that was not necessarily the case with the rest of her family, and she faced many obstacles in receiving higher education.
Katja first came to understand the hidden discrimination present in the system when writing her first essay at university. At that time, she realized that most of her fellow students had their parents help them structure their essays and proofread them, putting her at a disadvantage. She also learned much too late about scholarship programs: something her friends with academic backgrounds did not even mention to her since they assumed it was common knowledge. After reaching out for help from a number of sources, Katja was able to complete her university degree successfully and then continue on as a PhD student.
After graduating, she collected all her experiences and helped other students from the same background to successfully manage university life. Using her past as motivation, she designed and taught a curriculum for exam preparation and planned and conducted a course for first year students called “Introduction to Scientific Work.” Her private mentoring was very well-received, so after her success, Katja began considering starting a program of systematic assistance for people with non-studied parents.
Taking the initiative herself, Katja used the incentive of receiving pro bono coaching from the Start Social competition to start a business plan to create Arbeiterkind.de. From the beginning she was overwhelmed by the country-wide response and at the same time encouraged that this was exactly the right thing to do.