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Drexel student, 17, hopes to engineer some online tuition help

Zakiya James dreams of a Ph.D. by 25 and of owning an engineering firm. Her mother can’t afford to put her through school on a medical-receptionist’s salary.

Zakiya James, 17, a junior at Drexel, took a placement test to enroll in college before she even graduated from high school. She wants to get her Ph.d in engineering by the time she's 25 but is hampered by financial difficulties.
Zakiya James, 17, a junior at Drexel, took a placement test to enroll in college before she even graduated from high school. She wants to get her Ph.d in engineering by the time she's 25 but is hampered by financial difficulties.Read more

DREXEL University junior Zakiya James didn't graduate from high school, or even spend much time there. She never took the SATs or got a GED.

None of that stopped the 17-year-old from becoming a Drexel Dragon in January. Since transferring to the school, she has been thriving, taking a host of heavy-duty engineering courses.

But there's one small problem: Zakiya's parents can't afford Drexel's pricey tuition. Not by a long shot.

Her mother, who works as a medical receptionist in Washington, D.C., was able to make Zakiya's housing deposit and gave her money for books, but that was pretty much it. Zakiya has gotten financial aid from the school, but she is faced with the onerous task of coming up with the rest of the money she needs for tuition on her own.

It's heartbreaking.

Zakiya dreams of getting a doctorate by the time she's 25 and of one day owning an engineering firm. But she can't just concentrate on her studies.

Something is seriously wrong with that. As a country, we should make it easy for brilliant but disadvantaged students like Zakiya to thrive - not force them to take on mountains of debt or else forgo attending the university of their choice.

"It's kind of like college is priced as a luxury," she told me last week.

It shouldn't be.

"Grants have not kept pace with increasing college costs," pointed out Mark Kantrowitz, a college-financing expert. "So, more of the burden of paying for college has shifted from the federal and state governments to the families."

But what happens when families don't have the resources?

'Sweet but not too smart'

Financial struggles are nothing new for Zakiya's mother, Shawna Malone. Beginning with elementary school, she tried with mixed results to keep her daughter enrolled in private schools. At one point, Zakiya briefly attended a public middle school where a sixth-grade teacher described her as "sweet but not too smart."

"She was, basically, failing math in sixth grade," Malone recalled. "I couldn't understand what was happening. They were like, well, you know, 'She's just not grasping the material.' I knew I had to get her out of there. Because I was, like, 'That is not my daughter.' Something else was going on."

Malone worked out a deal with another private school to get a tuition discount in exchange for her volunteering. Zakiya stayed at that institution for two years before enrolling in a well-respected public high school. It wasn't long before problems showed up there as well.

"She didn't have homework," Malone complained, adding that her daughter had begun disengaging from school. "She was really starting to drift."

Malone had her daughter take a placement test for a program at the University of the District of Columbia that allowed Zakiya to enroll in college-level courses.

Being in college full time reignited her passion for learning. Despite being years younger than most of her classmates, Zakiya excelled, even making it onto the dean's list.

Last summer, she attended a prestigious 10-week program at Duke University known as the Research Experience for Undergraduates, during which she studied the impact of nanoparticles on wastewater treatment.

"I had no idea about her age," said Claudia Gunsch, an associate professor in Duke's civil and environmental engineering program. "She seemed very mature. She just seemed like any other junior."

Zakiya returned to D.C. ready to do even more hands-on research in her field. She decided to transfer for the spring term and applied to three universities. Drexel took her right away.

Zakiya adjusted well to college life. Her course load includes classes in environmental engineering, mechanics of materials and introduction to fluid flow. Zakiya went home for spring break owing $21,000 for the winter and current term. (Drexel is on the quarter system.)

Malone thought about selling her car, but then decided to launch an Internet crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Zakiya's outstanding bill.

She also reached out to several columnists at the Washington Post, looking to see who might champion her daughter's story. One bit, and contributions began to pour into her account. As of 10 p.m. yesterday, 194 donors had raised $23,349 toward Zakiya's goal of $55,000.

Even after the current bill is paid, Zakiya still has another pricey year at Drexel to get through. For the summer and winter terms alone, she needs an estimated $18,712 to continue.

It will be a crying shame if Zakiya doesn't get to graduate from Drexel. I'd send a chunk of money her way myself if I didn't have a nephew in a similar situation at the same school.

"Young women like this are the future of America," said Abigail Seldin, a college-finance expert and founder of "We should be doing everything possible to help them succeed."

Can I get an amen to that?