The challenge of completing college — and paying for it — dominated discussion at the June 4 meeting of the New Orleans College Preparatory Academies board of directors.

The charter group’s high school, Cohen College Prep, which just graduated its first senior class, is stepping up efforts to help alumni meet with success in colleges and universities.

The school’s recently hired college counselor, Sarah Payne, and director of alumni support, Paris Woods, joined with Cohen principal Rahel Wondwossen to give the board a presentation on the topic.

Wondwossen drew praise by the board for  Cohen’s strong performance on state exams but warned that getting through college can be grueling.

It’s not the optimists who survive, but those who face daunting challenges with perseverance and realism, she said, citing insights in  a book written by a former prisoner of war.

Although 93 percent of Cohen students gained admission to college — 78 percent of them to four-year institutions — for a variety of reasons, many will fail to graduate, she warned.

Payne stressed the importance of  students and parents understanding that it’s not just a matter of how much money you have to pay, but whether the  college invests in its students. She showed the board a chart comparing the estimated total cost of a four-year education with the percentage of African-American students who graduate.

At one end of the spectrum is the University of New Orleans, which costs approximately $14,952 for a four-year education but graduates only 2.8 percent  of African-American students. Southeastern costs $39,644 over four years and sees 5.6 percent through to graduation. Even Xavier, which costs an estimated $74,568, graduates only 23.1 percent. By contrast, universities at the far end of the spectrum, such as Spellman,  graduate 65 percent of African-American students, but at a cost of $142,176.

“The trade-offs aren’t fair …” Wondwossen said. “Those higher graduation rates are coming with huge price tags for our kids.”

Payne noted that official graduation rates are calculated based on how many students complete college in six years, but that the college cost estimates assumes students finish in four years. She said parents need to understand that anything over four years will cost them even more money.

She urged students to take on no more than $50,000 in college debt, a sum that  results in monthly credit payments of about $500 for years to come  — a big load to carry on a  young professional’s salary.

She urged that  New Orleans College Prep Academies  consider starting a fund to help alumni with the  unexpected fees that can crop up in college. Often small, the unforeseen charges can mount up in ways that endanger a student’s whole education if not paid on time.

“This team is brilliant,” board member Barbara McPhee said, adding that College Prep graduates might be a future exception to Louisiana’s  grim college graduation rates.

Wondwossen counseled preparation, not optimism. “Let’s get smart, really fast,” she said.