Catharine Bellinger is the executive director of Students For Education Reform.

A few months ago, I was speaking with a teacher at a KIPP school in DC and mentioned that I loved the “KIPP to College” program, which follows KIPP alumni through high school and to college. The teacher corrected me: the program is now called “KIPP Through College.” As the high-performing charter network has grown, they have realized that students not only need support to college, but through college and into careers as well.

This “cradle through career” approach has been adopted by Arne Duncan, who emphasized the need to follow students through college and into careers both in his administration’s blueprint for ESEA reauthorization and in the Race to the Top program. For teachers, principals, and policymakers across the country, “to college, through college, and into careers” is the education reform end game.

But for college students, it’s a perspective as well. College students have gone to college, and know that accessing higher education requires great teachers, hard work, collaboration between parents and schools, and a rigorous curriculum. Many have overcome the challenges of the achievement gap, or have siblings still in the local public schools back home.

Undergraduates are also currently going through college: they have a firsthand look at what college readiness really looks like, and can provide unique perspective into the rigor of college academic work. In a recent survey researched on behalf of Microsoft, 80 percent of college students reported that their high school math and science curricula did not adequately prepare them for college-level work.

Finally, college students are preparing to enter careers — and many of them will enter the teaching profession. The vast majority of rising teachers will not enter through alternative certification programs such as Teach For America, but will attend one of more than 1,000 schools of education in the U.S., which produce over 200,000 teachers a year. These students are hungry for better teacher preparation, and for information about what routes into the profession will allow them to be most successful. And according to McKinsey’s recent policy paper, Closing the Talent Gap, the top third of American undergraduates are also concerned about the professionalism of the teaching field. They are looking to be challenged, to be provided with high-quality professional support and mentoring, and to receive opportunities to advance based on their own performance. 

Students for Education Reform is a nonprofit I co-founded with a classmate, Alexis Morin, while in our sophomore year with the goal of providing college students a larger voice in the education discussion. As current college students (on a leave of absence), the highlight of our work is hearing from so many of our peers about why they care about improving the schools in their state. Although a frequent reaction to college student involvement in the education discussion is “go teach, and then you’ll have the right to a viewpoint,” all of our members feel passionately that college students have a “to college, through college, and into careers” perspective that is incredibly valuable to policymakers and educators.

Each of our 44 chapter leaders and over a thousand members can speak about his or her personal story and experience with K-12 education in the United States. Macy fought to attend a public charter school in San Diego, overcoming a learning disability to make it to college. Trevon was a student and then teacher in the college access program Breakthrough Collaborative. Abby went to New York City Public Schools and then onto a state college, and is eager to advocate for better state-level policies. There are thousands more stories–every single college student we work with has a story worth telling. We are trying to lift up their voices, adding a vibrant new stakeholder group to the education reform discussion.

For some reformers, “to college, through college, and into careers” is the motto that motivates their work. For us, it’s the definition of our stake in improving American public schools, so that our siblings, cousins, and neighbors can access a great education, and so that we can become great teachers ourselves.

Catharine Bellinger is the executive director of Students For Education Reform.


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