Wes Moore is an Army veteran who's behind a technology startup called BridgeEdU, which aims to help students make a successful transition from high school to college. He's produced a new documentary called All the Difference, airing Tuesday September 12th on PBS stations.
The film, made with Oscar-nominated producer/director Tod Lending, spends five years following Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch, two young African-American men from the South Side of Chicago as they attempt to become the first in their families to graduate both high school and college.
Wes previous spoke with us about his Coming Back With Wes Moore, a PBS series that profiles veterans as they adjust to life back in the States. We spoke to him again about All the Difference.
Wes talks about the documentary at a recent screening.How did you get involved with the making of this documentary?
It started with conversations about education and the high school completion crisis. We're doing better when it comes to high school completion, but high school completion can't be the only answer.There's a larger college completion challenge that we still have to solve.
In this documentary, we follow two African American young men. But it’s also a larger problem for many student populations, for non-traditional students, for veterans. We're doing a better job of getting students through high school, but the college completion numbers are anemic. What we wanted to show is what can be done to increase the chances of long-term college completion.
Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch speak at the same screening.
What really struck me while watching this film is the fact that these kids are going into $40,000 of debt while they’re in school. No one in their family has been to college, so they have no idea what it’s going to take to pay it back. It's two years later, how are those guys doing with that burden on their shoulders?
Both are dealing with that larger challenge of trying to find employment. No doubt about it, this debt factors into the employment conversation. What jobs can you take, what jobs are you willing to take when you know you have that level of debt that’s sitting over you?
So they're doing well and, in fairness, both of them are now employed in ways and in places that they would never have been employed if they didn’t have college degrees. The importance of the college degree really shows itself, however there's no doubt that the debt situation hangs over both of them.
How did you get involved with making this particular film?
I got to know Tod Lending, who is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy award-winning filmmaker. I had long admired his work. We were talking a bit about my work with BridgeEdU to address the college completion challenge. I started giving him statistics about what happens with some of the students as they enter higher education. We decided that a film could show the reality the some of these students face as they attempt to get a higher education.
Krishaun in class
You didn’t know where either Robert and Krishaun would attend college when you started the film. I found it interesting that they both ended up at private schools instead of local public institutions.
That’s right. I went to a two-year school first and then completed my degree at a four-year school. I think there's a lot of virtues to that or going to a public school. At a private school, students can get scholarships, but there are factors that have to enter into a conversation about higher education and where students should go. Sometimes the goal becomes acceptance, the goal becomes let me get in, but the goal is not about picking the school that has the right fit. I feel deeply that 80% of the college completion equation is either solved or not solved before the student even walks onto their campus. Did they pick the right school that's going to be supportive?
This film really seems to put a light on the fact that these kids are stumbling through. Even though it’s obvious that they’ve come out better than where they started.
When you look at that dynamic for first generation, first in family to attend college, it really is a very complicated dynamic.
Robert in class
How does the film fit into what you're doing these days?
A lot of my focus now has been and continues to be on BridgeEdU and what we're doing to address higher education and higher education completion. The film adds a cinematic focus and a name and adding a face to some of the dynamics that we're seeing every single day.
Obviously, the military can't take all of the kids who might benefit from being in the military because it's just not large enough to handle everyone. Do you think universal service, not all necessarily military, would help young people be better prepared to make those choices?
I am and have been a big advocate of universal service in some way, shape, or form. Whether it's military, whether it's Habitat for Humanity, whether it's working with youths, whatever it is, just having a year where you're learning and you're appreciating that it's about much more than just you. We then have to be smart about it and understand that this is not going to be free to do and it's not going to be cheap. If we really want to zero in and focus on universal service, we have to make sure that the financial assets are in place, that students can really benefit from it and can take advantage of it, and it doesn’t have to be a financial sacrifice.