Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Here at 50CAN we spend most of our time grappling with one essential question: How do we ensure that all kids have equal access to top-notch public schools that prepare them for success in college and work (or “post-secondary success,” as the jargon-hounds call it)?

In so many ways, however, the battle is just beginning when students enter college. The reality for far too many students is that they will leave college without their diploma. 8.3 percent of students from low-income families have earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s; compared with the national average of 30.6 percent. (Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Education Attainment in the United States: 2009 and Tom Mortenson, “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income Quartiles, 1970 to 2009.”) When we look at six-year graduation rates for four-year colleges and universities by race we see equally bleak outcomes. Compared to an overall average of 57 percent college completion:

  • White: 61 percent
  • African American: 39 percent
  • Latino: 49 percent
  • Asian: 68 percent
  • American Indian: 38 percent

(Source: IPEDS First Look: Enrollment in Secondary Institutions, Fall 2009.)

These numbers are a wake-up call and clear indicator that we must change our collective goal from getting all students prepared to enter college to getting students “to and through college,” a mantra I learned from Dr. Michal Lomax, President and CEO of UNCF (United Negro College Fund).

The bright spot on the horizon is the number of innovative programs emerging to support more and more students in their journey to complete college. I had the opportunity to get smart on one of these programs last Friday – The Partnership for College Completion (PCC) – when I moderated a panel on this topic at an event in New York City hosted by Thomson Reuters.

The Partnership is collaboration between three partner organizations – UNCF, KIPP, and the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) – whose goal is to increase the college enrollment and graduation rates of students from underserved communities. These three organization have pooled their collective resources and smarts to meet the challenge President Obama issued in the 2011 State of the Union address: reclaim our country’s place as a global leader in college completion by 2020.

The panel featured the leaders of each of these organizations: Michael Lomax of UNCF, Richard Barth of KIPP (also a 50CAN board member), and Andrea Levere of CFED. We covered a lot of ground in a short time (fast talkers all around) – discussing the toughest obstacles low-income students face as they work towards their college degree, the specifics of the Partnership for College Completion, implications for national policy, as well as powerful anecdotes about students involved with this program.

One question the panel took an in-depth look at was why so many students enter college, but leave before graduation? The answers were complex and varied, but can be summarized at a high level to include:

  • Students are unprepared for college-level work. We know that when students enter college academically behind and are forced to take high school-level remediation courses that don’t earn them college credits,  their chances of graduating decrease dramatically. Students who must take remedial courses in college use up their precious financial aid on non-credit-bearing courses, become demoralized about their career aspirations and often fall out of step with their peers. Looking at 12th graders entering college, 58 percent of students who did not require any remedial classes earned a B.A. or higher, compared to 17 percent of students who required remedial reading and 27 percent who required remedial math. (Source: NCES, The Condition of Education, 2004, Indicator 18.)
  • The cost of higher education is enormous and many low-income students and families are wholly unprepared to navigate the financial aid system. Between 1982 and 2007, the cost of college has increased at four times the rate of inflation. (Source: Education Trust, “Priced Out: How the Wrong Policies on Financial-Aid Hurt Low-Income Students.”) While the rapidly rising cost of college is felt by all families, it disproportionately impacts low-income families. The average low-income family must spend nearly three-quarters of its annual income—on top of all sources of grant aid—to pay for a four-year college. Even more troubling is that Pell Grants, the chief source of federal financial aid for low-income students, are at risk of being dramatically reduced (learn more about this issue from Education Trust). Meanwhile, our wealthiest families only spend 14 percent of their income to cover college costs.
  • Students not only require the key academic know-how to succeed in college, but also a set of character and “adult life” strengths that include grit, self-control, zest, optimism, gratitude and social intelligence, including self-advocacy. Think about what it’s like for the average 18-year-old to manage the financial aid office and negotiate loans on top of an academic course load plus a work-study or part-time job. (See recent, provocative research on this topic.)
  • Students and higher education institutions are often mismatched. Just as we know in the PK-12 world that some schools – like those operated by KIPP – have incredible track records and some don’t, there is wide variation in college completion rates for similar students attending similar schools. Whether or not a college is the “right fit” for a given student matters. A lot. College completion data can be found here.

The Partnership for College Completion was established to tackle these very issues and get more and more low-income students to and through college. In the Partnership, each of the organizations plays to their respective strengths to meet the shared goal by offering a comprehensive set of supports to students (and as applicable to their families) from sixth grade through college:

  • Incentivized college savings accounts
  • College knowledge and financial literacy education
  • Scholarships
  • Alumni tracking

The program is being piloted for two years within the KIPP network. The initial pilot program launched in 2010 with 1,600 sixth-, seventh-, and 11th-grade students in 18 KIPP schools in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and Houston. This fall the program is dramatically expanding to serve more than 7,500 students in 27 KIPP schools with the long-term goal of serving more than 50,000 low-income students by 2020.

Each piece of this triangular program is critical, but the specific impact of the savings account component on college completion astounded me. Students with college savings accounts in their name – regardless of the amount of money they contain – are seven times more likely to attend and persist through college than their peers without savings accounts. (Source: Center for Social Development, Washington University in St. Louis.)

The Partnership for College Completion will be rigorously evaluated by Brandeis University based on college matriculation and persistence rates; percentages, amounts and attitudes towards savings of students and families; and scholarship application and obtainment rates.

The students themselves – of course – do a far better job at describing the power of this program. Hear from them directly.


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