Easing barriers to college completion

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Breyana Floyd

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Breyana Floyd, who graduated from Chicago Academy High School in 2013, is now a sophomore at Monmouth College in rural Monmouth, Illinois, about 45 miles south of the Quad Cities.

On a brisk October afternoon, Breyana Floyd stares across the well-manicured lawn of Monmouth College and acknowledges that the odds of graduating are against her.

She doesn’t need research to know this. Breyana, a 20-year-old sophomore at this tiny liberal arts school in western Illinois, ticks off a list of former classmates who also came here from Chicago but have since disappeared from campus.

One friend got homesick, flunked her classes and moved back home. Another could no longer afford the tuition and transferred to a City College. A third vanished with no explanation at all.

Now Breyana is running into difficulties of her own that could derail her goal of becoming the first person in her family to earn a college degree. A work-study job she thought was hers for the fall semester never materialized. Other job opportunities are virtually non-existent in this small, rural community of boarded-up buildings and cornfields. And Monmouth is too far from larger communities where a part-time job might be easier to find — about 45 miles from the Quad Cities and 65 miles from Peoria.

“I’m facing the possibility of not coming back,” Breyana says, her normally cheery face downcast. “That money from work-study was going to help with bills and art supplies and keeping food in my fridge. I’m scrambling now.”

She’s far from alone in that scramble. Among first-generation college-goers, students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds — Breyana is all three — stories of post-secondary struggle and failure are more common than stories of success. Financial problems, academic difficulties and social and cultural challenges can have a disparate impact on these students.

Supporting students like Breyana has become an important concern for Chicago Public Schools, as more students graduate from high school and go on to college. Currently, just half of former CPS students who enroll in a four-year college end up earning a bachelor’s degree within six years — a statistic that has barely inched upward since 2006, according to recent data from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. District leaders want to raise college graduation to 60 percent within a decade.

High schools and higher education institutions acknowledge the barriers students face. To tackle the problem, CPS recently announced agreements with more than a dozen of the institutions that most frequently enroll CPS graduates.

There’s a moral imperative behind the mission. “If you’re bringing students in, the goal should be to actually graduate them,” says Aarti Dhupelia, chief of college and career success at CPS.

But there are outside pressures as well. High schools are now being rated in part on post-secondary metrics. And part of President Barack Obama’s push to raise the number of degree-holders nationwide is a new federal rating system that could eventually tie funding to outcomes like graduation rates.

“There’s a lot of energy around this,” Dhupelia says. “We’ve made significant progress over the last several years, yet we know we have a lot of work to do and we’re not where we want to be. But this is not an issue that CPS can tackle alone. This is both a CPS and a higher education issue.”

*     *     *

Researchers and educators in the trenches are looking for answers to the conundrum of college persistence and graduation for at-risk youth.

At the Chicago Collaborative for Undergraduate Success, housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bette Bottoms, Sue Farruggia and a small team of researchers are conducting surveys to find out. UIC’s research is significant because the school is the top four-year college destination for CPS grads. And while graduation rates are on the rise overall, CPS grads continue to lag about 10 percentage points behind: In 2014, the graduation rate for non-CPS grads was 62 percent, compared to 54 percent for those who attended CPS.

Getting a degreeThe preliminary findings from the major exit survey launched last spring indicate that finances are “a huge, huge factor and often the underlying reason that students don’t do well,” Farruggia says. It’s not just that students don’t have enough financial aid to pay for fees or books, but that work schedules or access to transportation also impact their ability to get to class.

Meanwhile, results from another survey on students’ non-cognitive skills — including study habits, academic mindset and social skills — are being linked with other data points to try to predict college success. Preliminary findings show a strong link between students’ perceived self-efficacy — that is, their belief in their own ability to be successful in school — and their grades and the number of credits they earn.

Graduation counts“The ultimate goal for those non-cognitive factors is if we can try to figure out which ones matter, we can try to do an intervention program,” Farruggia says. “If we find students that have particular profiles […] are dramatically at risk of failing out, let’s try to get them involved in an intervention over the summer. If it saves 10 percent of our students, the potential of that is huge.”

This and other internal UIC research is being shared with the more than 40 other institutions that make up the Collaborative.

The Collaborative is also leading the college persistence portion of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Thrive Chicago, a network of some 200 organizations and institutions focused on improving education outcomes.

At Monmouth, leaders are grappling with the same challenges, as more lower-income black and Latino students have enrolled in recent years. Federal data from 2013 show that just 44 percent of black freshmen had graduated within six years, compared to 58 percent overall.

To determine exactly why students leave, Monmouth rewrote the questions asked during exit interviews with students who withdraw.

“The more we pay attention to that, the more it’s going to help us form our goals in terms of retaining them,” says Dana Roof, who runs Monmouth’s academic support programs.

*     *     *

When Breyana was growing up, it never occurred to her that college was even an option. Neither of her parents attended college. Nationally, just 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college students graduate, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Breyana, who lived in Aurora most of her childhood, transferred to Chicago Academy High School on the city’s Northwest Side during her sophomore year. She was a disinterested student, though, and had trouble adjusting — both at school, where she had few friends and was a C student, and at home, where she and her parents shared close quarters with other relatives.

“My sophomore year was rough. I didn’t want to be there at all,” she says.

But toward the end of the school year, one of her teachers pulled Breyana aside to insist she apply for a fellowship through OneGoal, a non-profit that works with under-achieving students at more than 40 low-income high schools in Chicago. Students get additional academic preparation, college guidance and social support for three years, starting with a class during junior year of high school.

OneGoal and other non-profits — such as the Umoja Student Development Corporation, Bottom Line, Posse Foundation (a national program that has a Chicago component), One Million Degrees and Chicago Scholars — are focused on improving college enrollment and graduation rates for CPS students.

In general, the groups help students identify the best colleges for them, complete applications and visit campuses. They also provide extra academic support and help build up the non-cognitive, or “soft skills,” that students need to finish college, such as good study habits. Once students are in college, the group keeps tabs on them.

“It’s a disservice to students to encourage them to go to college but not support them through graduation,” says Sarah Berghorst, executive director of OneGoal in Chicago.

“It’s not just about access. It’s about establishing academic, financial and social foundations that lead them to persist and graduate.”

At her teacher’s urging, Breyana applied for and won a spot in the program. She says no one ever had such high expectations of her potential. She dove hard into her class work, getting to school at 6:30 a.m. and often staying until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. “The long days really gave me something to focus on,” she says.

By the time she graduated from Chicago Academy in 2013, Breyana felt ready for college. Her Cs and Ds had turned to As and Bs, and she raised her ACT score from a 15 — too low for any college except one with open admissions — on a practice test to a 23 on the official test. The CPS average is 18.

*     *     *

High school academic performance, as measured by grade-point averages and ACT scores, are major predictors of college persistence. Strong ACT scores allow students to get into better colleges, while GPAs indicate whether students are ready for college work.

An ACT research report found that 23 percent of college students with ACT composite scores between 16 and 19 dropped out before their sophomore year, compared to fewer than 10 percent of those with scores of 24 or above.

But on average, CPS students graduate from high school woefully unprepared. “Almost a third of graduates leave school with a GPA of less than 2.0, which means they are not showing the skills needed for success in either college or the workforce,” according to a December report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education considered just 27 percent of last year’s CPS graduates, compared to 46 percent of graduates statewide, ready for college-level courses based on whether they earned a 21 or higher on the ACT.

CPS leaders insist that high schools are doing a better job of preparing students for college, pointing to higher graduation rates, more students taking Advanced Placement courses and other factors. Beyond academic readiness and soft skills, Dhupelia believes high schools can improve retention through better college advising.

Research shows that students with similar academic backgrounds can have drastically different performance, depending on the college they attend — even when the colleges have similar admissions requirements. Some colleges simply offer better support for their students, including strong financial aid packages, academic help and counseling — and have higher graduation rates as a result.

“We could look at colleges we’re sending our kids to, and say, ‘[They’re] both somewhat competitive, but College B actually has a much higher graduation rate than College A,’” Dhupelia says. “Maybe we should be sending more students to College B.”

Providing this kind of guidance, especially to students whose families don’t have their own college experiences to draw on and pass on, requires manpower. Yet a recent report prepared by a consultant to the Donors Forum, a statewide philanthropic group, found that non-charter CPS high schools have an average of one counselor for every 303 students, while the average ratio at charter schools is one to 238. At private schools, the ratio is one to 159. The recommended ratio, according to one national group, is 250 students per counselor.

The report, which focused on resources to improve college persistence, found that two-thirds of schools have at least one senior seminar, college and careers course or similar class. Separately, two-thirds of schools have at least one non-profit partner working on the issue.

This year, through Thrive Chicago, CPS began training dozens of high school counselors and other workers on best practices in college guidance. Counselors are now receiving annual updates on their graduates’ enrollment and persistence by college. And Thrive Chicago is developing a college admissions curriculum for senior seminar classes, with the goal of having all high schools offer such a course.

*     *     *

Andrew Johnson

Photo by William Camargo

Chicago Academy High School college coordinator Andrew Johnson works with students in a college and ACT prep course. Previously, Johnson led a cohort of students who graduated in 2013 — including Breyana Floyd — through a program called OneGoal.

The teacher assigned to guide Breyana’s OneGoal cohort was Andrew Johnson, who oversees college counseling for Chicago Academy. Johnson had taught college-focused seminars previously, but says the training from OneGoal led to a significant change in how he talks about college.

Now, Johnson pays particular attention to a college’s graduation rate, especially its graduation rate for students of color. He also raised the number of college applications seniors have to complete, from five to seven, in order to match the OneGoal requirement.
“It really gives students more [opportunities] and increases their chances that they’ll get good options,” Johnson says.

Breyana sent applications to about 30 colleges and got a high with every acceptance letter that came in the mail. She pinned them to her bedroom wall. “It was kind of great to see — 21 schools let me in,” she remembers.

To narrow the list, Breyana compared cost and graduation rates. Monmouth offered her a decent financial aid package that covered nearly 75 percent of tuition, room and board; fees would be covered by federal, state and college grants. The remaining $10,000 or so annually would come from loans — an amount she and her parents thought they could handle.

Breyana vaguely remembers seeing Monmouth’s graduation rates for students of color, which, although lower than the overall rate, compared well with some of her other options. At the time, that statistic wasn’t front-and-center in her mind.

A major selling point was the picturesque campus, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago. Unlike her Austin neighborhood, Monmouth was quiet and peaceful. “I didn’t want to live in chaos anymore,” she says.

Breyana also loved the small class sizes and the fact that the advisers knew students by name. “You’re really able to cultivate relationships,” she observes.

The same factors that would eventually prompt some of her classmates to drop out — being homesick and having limited social options — weren’t an issue for Breyana during her freshman year. She immersed herself in classwork. As an art major, she often stayed in the darkroom until past 3 a.m. to finish photography assignments. College-level work proved overwhelming, and she barely got a 2.0 GPA in her first semester; the next semester, she pulled her grades up significantly.

Freshman year was challenging for another reason: Breyana stopped taking medication for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. In high school, teachers had given her special accommodations, including extra time on assignments. But Breyana didn’t ask for any of that at Monmouth.

“I didn’t want that to define me here. I was trying to do it like everyone else,” she says. Plus, the medication was expensive, and she didn’t want an additional financial burden on her parents.

Though she wasn’t overtly conscious of racial dynamics, Breyana gravitated toward other black students from Chicago. Some friends complained about the limited social life, work opportunities, and even cell phone reception, not to mention the distance from home.

Dana Roof often hears about the culture shock that students from Chicago experience. “It’s very far from Chicago, three hours by train, and seems even longer when you drive,” she says. “Three hours doesn’t seem very long when you first come, but after your first month or so when you’re here and talk with family on the phone, it’s not the same as being there with them.”

*     *     *

Breyana’s eventual post-secondary success will weigh into her high school’s rating in CPS under a new system instituted this year.

College enrollment and persistence beyond the first year each account for 5 percent of most high schools’ overall rating.

“Unlike a number of districts that will stop at graduation rates, we said that’s a penultimate indicator,” says John Barker, chief of accountability for CPS. “The ultimate outcomes are success after we’re no longer in the picture. The kinds of things that we can do are getting these students to pick up tools, knowledge, skills and ability to propel them into the world of college and careers.”

Few major urban school districts use post-secondary success to rate high schools. Experts say there has been reluctance to do so.

“We tend to think of high schools as having a more direct influence on other outcomes, like diplomas or favorable [test] scores,” says Chris Domaleski, a senior associate for the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. “When you’re looking at something that’s more disconnected from school, it’s a fair question to ask, ‘Is the outcome something that can be influenced by the actions the high school is taking?’”

Some educators note that holding high schools responsible for college success only serves to penalize schools that don’t have enough resources to provide the help that low-income students need to succeed.

The first year’s ratings bear out the connection: Of the nine high schools that earned the highest score for college persistence — with at least 85 percent of 2012 graduates still in college as sophomores — all but one were selective or magnet schools with fewer low-income students.

Meanwhile, at 24 of the 29 schools with the lowest persistence rates, more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Once again, principals are given something that is being held up as a lever of punishment and it is yet another disincentive for the most challenged schools,” says Lila Leff, founder and former CEO of Umoja Student Development Corp.

“The fact we haven’t figured out remediation in any of our transitions — from grammar school to high school or high school to post-secondary — is a burden for all of us, especially for the young people getting into college,” Leff adds. “Not answering that question yet and blaming high schools for it seems very limited and limiting.”

*     *     *

This year, the federal government will release a first-ever system for rating colleges and universities that’s expected to include metrics such as graduation rates, the percentage of students who are first-generation college-goers, and cost.

While the ratings won’t be immediately tied to funding, the Obama Administration hopes to eventually reward highly rated schools by giving them a bigger share of federal grants and subsidized loans.

“There’s been all kinds of conversations going on in terms of federal aid, like the Pell Grants,” says Greg Darnieder, the senior adviser on college access to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a former CPS official. “Shouldn’t institutions that are being more successful in terms of first-generation students earning college credit, persisting toward graduation and eventually graduating, be rewarded for their effectiveness?”

A final plan has not yet been drafted, and Congress isn’t expected to vote on whether to tie money to ratings for several more years.

According to the theory of market pressure, if colleges want to avoid a drop in enrollment, they will find ways to offer more support for students. But market pressure is not a guarantee, and could have the opposite effect: Some institutions might stop accepting students like those from CPS, who need the most remedial academic help and financial aid, and are at the highest risk of dropping out.

“I can tell you that those conversations are happening at other universities across the country,” says Frank Ross, vice president for student affairs at Northeastern Illinois University. “If you’re looking at your retention rates and you’re seeing a certain type of student is more successful on your campus, there could be an incentive for that university to go after that student.”

Ross worries that high schools will counsel students away from Northeastern because of its 23 percent graduation rate for CPS students. (Other “somewhat selective” colleges post rates of between 18 and 30 percent, according to the recent Consortium report.)

Instead, Ross believes counselors should consider the results from support programs at Northeastern that target Latino and African-American freshmen who otherwise wouldn’t meet admissions requirements. With extra advising, academic help and other assistance, these students have retention rates that are routinely 20 percentage points higher than other black and Latino students.

Ross and administrators at other universities say lack of money prevents them from expanding these types of initiatives.

At Monmouth College, Roof is applying for additional federal funding to increase academic and social support for low-income, first-generation students. She’s also looking for ways to increase job opportunities for these students, since many more of them qualify for work-study jobs than there are jobs available.

“The consciousness is there. The ambition is there. And we have some programs, but you can always do more,” Roof says.

*     *     *

This fall, Breyana applied to every work-study opportunity she heard about on campus, hoping to use the earnings to fill a $3,000 hole that financial aid and loans didn’t cover. But the jobs went fast.

Unexpected financial challenges are routine for former students, says Johnson at Chicago Academy. And though he tries to counsel students about their options for handling the situation — whether it’s considering an additional loan or going with students to the college’s financial aid office — he knows that financial crises can sometimes stop students in their tracks.

“I didn’t realize how fraught that path could be. That’s something I’ve learned from my students,” Johnson says. “In Breyana’s case, not knowing whether she can continue to pay must scare her beyond belief. And it scares me, too, for being one of the people to encourage her to do this.”

Breyana’s mother, who works long hours at a bank, thought about taking a second job. But she ultimately settled on a payment plan with the university. As a result, other bills aren’t always paid on time.

Meanwhile, Breyana changed her major from art to public relations, in part because she could no longer afford to buy expensive canvasses, paints and other materials.

Job prospects were another factor. “It’s all about stability. At this point, I know I can get a job in [public relations] when I graduate,” she says. The same wasn’t true about photography.

As she dealt with the stress of figuring out how to pay for school and watched some of her classmates leave campus, Breyana began questioning whether the college could do more to keep students like her from dropping out. Money and academics were only part of the equation.

Now that she has a handle on the academic rigor, Breyana says she would like to have more of a social life on campus but isn’t finding much to do.

“When you’re bringing in African-American students surrounded by white kids, you need something that feels like home,” says Breyana, who is now trying to start the first black sorority on campus. “You have no idea how depressing it is to be here in the middle of nowhere, where there is nothing for you to do.”

Sometimes Breyana wonders if she made the right choice in picking Monmouth, and ponders whether a historically black college in the South or a university closer to home would have been a smarter fit. Other times, she wonders whether she should just go home to work for a semester and help her family out with money.

But she doesn’t dwell on those thoughts for long. After all, she says, she loves her courses, the professors and her college friends. She doesn’t believe she could get a better education anywhere. And she doesn’t want to let anybody down.

“I can’t do that to myself. I can’t do that to my parents,” Breyana says. “That has made me decide to stay and fight. I want to finish.”

  • Phillip Jackson – Black Star

    This is a great article! It should be required reading for all CPS sophomores and juniors. And especially their teachers.