Raise the bar to college persistence, not just college-going

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Jeff Nelson

In the last 20 years, the United States has plummeted from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates. As a result, this generation of college-age Americans is at risk of being the first generation to be less-educated than their parents.

It is no secret that college degrees, including advanced degrees and specialized training, are growing in importance and are critical pieces of many meaningful careers. And college-prep efforts are the subject of more media coverage, research studies, new state laws, and even the work of the Obama Administration in Washington. In addition, the demand for college degrees is rising among young people: Since 1980, the share of 10th graders nationally who hope to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher has doubled, from 40 percent back then to 80 percent in 2002.

Yet only 31 percent of Americans are earning four-year degrees after high school, a figure that drops to 8 percent for students from low-income households. Further, high-achieving, high income students are two-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college than high-achieving students from low-income communities. And 60 percent of low-income and minority students eventually drop out of college after they enroll and start to pursue their degrees.

In Chicago, where 86 percent of Chicago Public Schools students come from low-income homes, only 18 percent of incoming 9th-graders enroll in four-year colleges after high school. Only eight percent are expected to graduate by age 25.

Make schools, colleges accountable

In order to better prepare our students for life-long success, it is imperative that we shift our thinking from K-12 to K-16. We can start to do this by focusing our efforts in two key areas.

First, high schools must implement strategies that see students past high school graduation, college acceptance and even college enrollment, to support their alumni once they arrive on campus. More specifically, our hope in Chicago is that CPS will one day hold its high schools accountable for the percentage of their graduates completing two- or four-year degrees.

Indeed, college acceptance is a hallmark moment in the lives of many students. It is a time for celebration and provides evidence that we are making progress in closing the achievement gap. However, we miss an opportunity when we focus solely on what schools are doing to get their students into college. It is imperative that we also support high school efforts to follow their graduates and track their progress through college. This sounds expensive and cost-prohibitive, but it is not. At Urban Students Empowered, we identify and train teachers at partner high schools to work with promising yet under-performing students in low-income schools, to prepare them for college success. All 20 of our partner schools willingly share in the cost, and we have a comprehensive, rigorous curriculum that guides the work of our teachers when they support their former students as freshmen in college.

Second, colleges must improve the way they support students from low-income communities, from the first day of college through graduation. Nationally, the rate of college completion for students from the highest income quartile (more than $108,284 per year) is 82 percent, but for students in the lowest income quartile ($36,080 per year or less) it is eight percent. Colleges do well when their students do well, and some savvy colleges are working hard to better support their students from low-income communities. More specifically, students from low-income neighborhoods, especially first-generation college-goers, often struggle to persist in college because of academic, financial and social obstacles.

Designating teachers or staff at the high school and college levels to support students through challenges—getting and maintaining a strong financial aid package, balancing the demands of family and homesickness, developing relationships with professors and college advisors, and learning strategies for effective time management—dramatically improves their chances of college success. If districts are going to hold their high schools accountable for the college-persistence rates of their graduates, colleges must also be accountable. 

Discipline, other skills are key

Non-cognitive skills such as ambition, integrity, professionalism, resilience and resourcefulness also increase rates of college success, and are key indicators of college persistence.

Examples of schools that teach such skills include KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, which focus on grit, zest, self-control, optimism and curiosity. Urban Prep Charter School focuses on hard work, accountability, dedication and no excuses. Noble Street Charter School’s tenets include discipline and honor.

We must teach students to be resilient when their parents want them to come home from college to support their siblings instead, to be resourceful by calling a former teacher when they’re far from home and coping with the death of a loved one, to act with discipline and ambition by studying for mid-terms starting at the beginning of each semester, to develop professional relationships with all professors to secure customized support, and to relentlessly jump through the hoops required to maintain a solid financial aid package in years two, three and four of college. These non-cognitive skills are often the difference between staying in college or not, and play a critical role in college access and persistence. 

This summer marked the second anniversary of the launch of President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative, when the president announced his goal of reclaiming America’s place as first in the world for the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. This was the most ambitious federal effort to make college accessible since President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the GI Bill in 1944. And while it has proved difficult to fund the $12 billion effort, the president did a good thing by making college persistence a large part of his education reform efforts.

Let’s not let the transformative moment pass. 

Jeff Nelson is co-founder & CEO of Urban Students Empowered, a non-profit that selects and trains teachers. For more information go to www.usempowered.org