1 PAVING THE WAY FOR COLLEGE SUCCESS Strategies for Increasing College Persistence and Graduation Rates April 2010
2 Paving the Way for College Success Page 2 FOREWORD: BY ALEXANDRA BERNADOTTE, FOUNDER AND CEO, BEYOND 12 Carlos was born in Southeast Houston to immigrant parents from Central America. While no one in his family had gone to college, his own interest in college was sparked when he enrolled as a 6 th grader in a public college-preparatory school. Despite academic challenges in middle school and high school, Carlos decided to pursue a college degree. With the support of his parents, teachers, and college counselors, he applied to and was accepted at a small, competitive private college with a transitional year program designed to improve his academic skills and promote collaborative learning while he took his first college courses. Unlike many of his peers from similar backgrounds, Carlos was pleasantly surprised to find that his transition to college was relatively smooth. He felt well-prepared academically, particularly in math, and had developed strong study habits in high school, which made college-level coursework much more manageable. Although he initially found it difficult to fit in, he joined a variety of extracurricular groups, which helped him to create a supportive social network with a broad range of peers. He met with his academic advisor regularly, visited his professors during office hours, and the writing resource lab was his second home. Five years out of high school, Carlos is now a college graduate. Sadly, Carlos story is rare. For many students with similar backgrounds, the odds of getting to college let alone earning a bachelor s degree are slim. Even those students who persist and graduate encounter a multitude of obstacles along the way, from insufficient financial aid to social isolation to academic struggles. What was it about Carlos experience that enabled him to succeed in college? His own resilience and perseverance clearly mattered a great deal, but other critically important factors include the comprehensive support he received from his family and high school prior to and throughout his post-secondary years, as well as assistance from the student retention office his college established to help undergraduates earn their degrees. He completed a college-preparatory curriculum that prepared him well academically, but also received expert guidance on college selection and application from experienced counselors who steered him toward colleges where he was likely to succeed. Before college, he gained valuable insight on what to expect there through both alumni conversations and small-group discussions with classmates and teachers. Once in college, his faculty advisor assessed his challenges, provided him with academic and emotional support, and connected him with on-campus resources that helped him stay the course to graduation even when financial difficulties disrupted his studies and threatened his continued enrollment. Today, a college degree matters more than ever. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, the number of jobs available to adults without at least some post-secondary education is declining rapidly, and the earnings gap between jobs requiring a degree and those that do not is widening. College graduates earn at least 60 percent more than high school graduates, and are nearly twice as likely to be employed. 1 Increasing the number of college graduates not only has a positive impact on the lives of youth today, it can also help break the cycle of poverty for generations to come: a parent s level of education is the most important predictor of a child s aspirations and level of success. 2 Despite this, a staggering number of young people in this country do not graduate from college, particularly those who are from low-income backgrounds or the first in their families to attend college. Students from homes where neither parent has earned a degree are twice as likely as those with a college-educated parent to leave before their second year 3 and only one in seven low-income students manage to earn a bachelor s degree. 4 Even as outstanding public college-preparatory high schools in disadvantaged communities graduate record numbers of low-income students and send them off to college, they find that too few of those students succeed once there. Rigorous academic preparation and a college-focused culture can get them in the door, but the path to a degree is not easy. While college enrollment is a noble pursuit, it is no longer enough: we must expect that all students will succeed in college, and then help make that happen. Both high schools and colleges must provide students with the skills, tools and support necessary to successfully navigate college life and should work to bridge the divide between the K-12 and higher education systems that makes this transition particularly challenging. This is the only way to ensure that Carlos story becomes the rule rather than the exception. 1 U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hertz, T. (2006). Understanding Mobility In America. Center for American Progress. 3 Choy, S. (2002). Access and Persistence: Findings from 10 Years of Longitudinal Research on Students. American Council on Education. 4 Bedsworth, W., Colby, S., Doctor, J. (2006). Reclaiming the American Dream. The Bridgespan Group.
3 Paving the Way for College Success Page 3 TABLE OF CONTENTS About NewSchools & This Publication... 4 Purpose and Scope of This Toolkit... 5 About the Featured Organizations... 7 College Knowledge... 8 Understanding Why a College Degree Matters... 8 Exposure to the College Application Process... 8 Connections to Alumni... 8 Summer Opportunities... 9 Social Readiness... 9 Exploring Race and Identity College Guidance Key Elements of the Selection Process Placement Support Financial Support Financial Aid Education and Support Demystifying Debt Identifying Institutional Funding Sources Balancing Work and School Transition Support Exit Interviews and Signing FERPA Waivers Ongoing Outreach by High Schools On-Campus Support and Strategic Partnerships Peer Networks Family Engagement FCE: Parents as Partners YES Prep: Engaging Families Early and Often Recommendations Additional Resources Full Toolkit... 22
4 Paving the Way for College Success Page 4 ABOUT NEWSCHOOLS & THIS PUBLICATION NewSchools Venture Fund is a national nonprofit that is working to transform public education through powerful ideas and passionate entrepreneurs so that all children especially those in underserved communities have the opportunity to succeed. NewSchools does this by supporting education entrepreneurs a special breed of innovators who create new nonprofit and for-profit organizations that redefine our sense of what is possible in public education. Founded in 1998, NewSchools has since raised nearly $150 million and invested in a portfolio of more than 30 entrepreneurial organizations. In each of our funds, we have focused our investments in key leverage areas where social entrepreneurs can have a meaningful impact on some of the toughest challenges facing public education. We take an active role with each venture in our portfolio to create healthy organizations that generate breakthrough results for the students they serve, and connect their work to the broader landscape of public education reform. This publication was produced by consultant Julie Obbard and NewSchools team member Gwen Baker. In addition, team members from the organizations profiled in this publication provided instrumental content knowledge through interviews and access to background materials. NewSchools would like to express its deep appreciation to Alexandra Bernadotte of Beyond12, Donald Kamentz of YES Prep Public Schools, April Alvarez of Eastside College Prep, Amy Christie of the The Bronx Lab School, and Anna Waring from the Foundation for College Education for their time and energy in making this toolkit possible. This publication is the latest installment in NewSchools ongoing efforts to highlight the work of the entrepreneurial ventures we support and others who are pioneering new ways to dramatically improve public education. By enabling entrepreneurs to share their ideas, knowledge, and practices with one another and with the wider field, we hope to accelerate the improvement of public education for underserved students. We hope this case study and related toolkit will inform your organization s work. To access a.zip file containing the raw source documents included in this toolkit that you may repurpose in your own organization, please visit For more publications like this one, see: Practices from the Portfolio, Volume 1 Practices from the Portfolio, Volume 2 A Highly Effective Teacher in Every Classroom: Creating Talent Development Systems That Drive Instructional Excellence
5 Paving the Way for College Success Page 5 PURPOSE AND SCOPE OF THIS TOOLKIT This toolkit is designed to expand the dialogue about what it takes to better prepare students for success in college. It does this by sharing emerging practices and tools used by organizations that have designed and implemented comprehensive college success programs. For students to enroll in and succeed in college at much higher rates, they need a comprehensive set of support structures. Research points to several key elements which, when integrated into a cohesive strategy focused on entrance and persistence, significantly increase the odds of college success: College Knowledge Understanding why a college education matters Exposure to the college application process Connections to alumni Summer opportunities Social readiness Family engagement College Guidance Targeted selection College visits Individualized college counseling meetings Application support Placement support Financial Support Financial aid Financial literacy Balancing work and school Transition Support Exit interviews Outreach and support from secondary inst. Connections to campus resources Peer networks Academic Preparation College prep curriculum Academic habits training (e.g. time mgt, selfadvocacy), Study skills training (e.g. note taking, research) Test prep College Success A post secondary degree within 6 years Post Secondary Support Freshman learning communities Proactive outreach by college advisors Early outreach and summer bridge programs The practices profiled in this toolkit address four of the six elements shown above: College Knowledge College Guidance Financial Support Transition Support In addition, this toolkit also includes a section on the critical role of a student s family (Family Engagement), and identifies ways to engage them. This element ought to be integrated throughout the entire process.
6 Paving the Way for College Success Page 6 It is important to note that this tool focuses on the work that high schools can do to increase the rate of enrollment, persistence, and graduation but we would be remiss not to mention the importance of both academic preparation at the high school level and post-secondary support. Research shows that a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum is unequivocally the most important factor in determining bachelor s degree attainment, yet even the most academically prepared students often struggle to navigate the college experience without mastering essential academic skills such as note-taking, study skills and critical thinking, as well as academic habits such as time management, self-advocacy and networking. The consequence of not developing these skills and habits in high school is that once students arrive in college, they are not prepared for the demands of self-directed learning. Meanwhile, college graduation rates at most two-year and four-year institutions are staggeringly low. On average, four-year colleges graduate less than 60% of their freshmen within six years 5, and only 19% of four-year colleges and universities have a 6-year graduation rate above 70% 6. Graduation and transfer rates for two-year institutions are even worse. Approximately half of community college students drop out before receiving a credential, and far fewer transfer to four-year colleges. 7 In order to truly move the dial on college success, post-secondary institutions must take greater responsibility for reversing these trends by providing resources directly to support student persistence and success. Colleges and universities have a critical role to play in If universities reach out to at-risk students years before they arrive in higher education, providing additional resources and support for the transition to college and ultimately throughout the entire undergraduate experience, at-risk students can succeed at the same rate as their peers. Kevin Carey, Education Sector ensuring that students are both prepared for and successful in college. Although a few post-secondary institutions including Florida State University, University of Alabama, University of California Los Angeles, and University of South Carolina have begun to focus strategically on undergraduate retention efforts, this continues to be an area of significant underinvestment. Most post-secondary college success efforts at the college and university level lack buy-in from institutional leadership, operate without a comprehensive model for student success, and rarely have a central person, office or system responsible for coordinating engagement and persistence efforts, and thus have limited impact on retention. 8 5 Hess, F., Schneider, M., Carey, K. and Kelly, A (2009). Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't). American Enterprise Institute. 6 Analysis completed using Education Trust s College Results Online, 7 Geckeler, C., Beach, C., Pih, M., & Yan, L. (2008). Helping Community College Students Cope with Financial Emergencies. New York, New York: MDRC. 8 John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
7 Paving the Way for College Success Page 7 ABOUT THE FEATURED ORGANIZATIONS It is important to emphasize that most of the practices profiled in this toolkit are relatively new and in the early stages of implementation and evaluation for effectiveness. The organizations profiled in this toolkit were selected because of the systematic way in which they think about college persistence, and the investments they have made in the people and systems needed to provide support to students at the secondary and post-secondary level. These organizations have all graduated at least one senior class, and at least 85 percent of the students they serve will be first-generation college students, the first in their families to attend college. They have also all demonstrated a focus on results as measured by explicit goals, accountability systems, and opportunities for reflection and program improvement as well as a high level of investment from senior leadership, with the CEO and other members of the senior management team continually reinforcing and supporting college success as a core part of the organization s mission. The Bronx Lab School ( The Bronx Lab School, founded in 2007, is a small, open-enrollment public high school in New York City serving 440 students in grades % of Bronx Lab students are first-generation college-bound, and nearly 90% are economically disadvantaged. The first class of seniors graduated in Of this class, 85% matriculated to college, and 76% have persisted beyond freshman year. For the class of 2009, 85% matriculated to college. Five members of the class of 2008, four members of the class of 2009, and three members of the class of 2010 are Posse Scholars, and have been awarded four year full tuition scholarships to prestigious liberal arts colleges. Eastside College Prep ( Eastside College Prep is a private, college preparatory school in East Palo Alto, California. Opened in 1996 with eight ninth-grade students, Eastside currently serves 255 students in grades % of students are first-generation college-bound, and 100% are underrepresented minorities. 100% of Eastside students have enrolled in four-year colleges, and 77% have graduated or are on track to graduate. Foundation for a College Education (FCE) ( Foundation for a College Education (FCE) was founded in 1995 to promote college access for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. FCE targets talented students of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, those who are the first in their families to attend college, and those with limited higher education experience. FCE provides a free comprehensive program that encourages students to move beyond standard grade-level performance to prepare for the nation s competitive colleges and universities. 75% of all FCE families are low-income and 90% of students are the first in their families to attend college. Of the 102 students who have completed the program, 50 are in college and are on track to graduate within five years, 40 have graduated from college, and 6 have attained graduate degrees. YES Prep Public Schools ( YES Prep Public Schools is a charter management organization serving 3,500 students across seven campuses in the Houston area. 90% of YES students are first-generation college-bound, and 80% are economically disadvantaged. For nine consecutive years, 100% of graduating seniors have been accepted into four-year colleges, and 84% have graduated from college, or are still enrolled.
8 Paving the Way for College Success Page 8 COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE Students who understand the relationship between a college education and their future career goals are much more likely to earn a post-secondary degree than those students who do not make this connection. 9 This makes the pursuit of college particularly challenging for students without a network of college-educated family members or peers. Helping these first-generation college students and their families develop a clear understanding of the higher education system and the tools necessary to earn a college degree is a critical component of any college success program. This education process should start early and should be reinforced throughout the high school years. This section explores practices that Bronx Lab and YES College knowledge means understanding Why a college degree is important, and how it impacts future options How the higher education system works How to apply to and be competitive for college What college options are available What to expect once in college Prep have developed to help students understand how to gain admission to a school of their choice and turn college aspirations into college attainment. Understanding Why a College Degree Matters Beginning in the 9 th grade and continuing through junior year, Bronx Lab teachers and counselors spend considerable time helping students make the connection between college and their future life choices. In College Awareness, an advisory course that spans the four years of high school, students examine life after school and home and the difficult choices they will be forced to make. Students look at projected lifetime earnings tied to different levels of degree attainment and explore different careers, along with the steps required to succeed in them. Members of the community who work in different sectors share with students the opportunities a There s a difference between wanting to go to college and someone telling you want to go to college. Because when you go to college for reasons you don t know why, then you drop out. It s like a promise you re keeping that s not yours. First-generation college student college education has afforded them, and the pathways that led them to their current professions. Students select a desired profession, and create a resume that reflects the skills and experiences required. A person can be really career-focused, but until they understand what it really takes to become a doctor, they don t fully grasp how the choices they make now impact their future opportunities, explains Amy Christie, Bronx Lab s Director of College Counseling. Many students are often surprised to realize that the choices they make in high school will have a major impact on their future lifestyle. Throughout College Awareness, students are asked to imagine their lives 5-10 years down the road: Working Monday through Friday or Monday through Sunday? Working 1 or 2 jobs? Own a car? Rent or own your house? Answering these questions helps students understand the tradeoffs they ll be forced to make, and the role that college plays in future choices. Exposure to the College Application Process Preparing for college entrance exams, fulfilling graduation and college entry requirements, and completing college applications require a high degree of preparation, planning and information gathering. Students need information and structured support to help them navigate this process. At Bronx Lab, students learn about college entry requirements early and are introduced to the college application process beginning in the 9 th grade, even getting an introduction to the campus college office that year. Connections to Alumni Peers have a significant influence on students college-going aspirations and decisions. In fact, one study revealed that students are four times more likely to enroll in college if most or all of their high school friends are planning to attend a four-year 9 Pathways to College Network (2007). Social Support: An Essential Ingredient to Success.
9 Paving the Way for College Success Page 9 college. 10 Bronx Lab connects current high school students with alumni currently enrolled in college. Each advisory group is matched with 2-5 alumni who become their college buddies and Bronx Lab students write letters and send care packages to them. To learn about the institutions their college buddies are attending, students create profiles of the colleges and universities their buddies attend to become familiar with different college options. During spring break, the college buddies are invited to return to Bronx Lab to meet with advisory groups in person. YES Prep also invites recent graduates to participate in conversations with students about college life. In these informal and open discussions with 2-3 alumni per group, they explore issues such as the transition to college, academic preparation, and the steps students can take to be prepared. Hearing from alumni who were in their same shoes and can speak to the value of a YES education is a real wake-up call, says Donald Kamentz, Director of College Initiatives at YES Prep. Kamentz and his team are very intentional about matching recent graduates with students. It s important to be strategic about which alumni are paired with which students, he says. For example, a student who almost dropped out of high school is optimal for an 8 th or 10 th grade group because they tend to be the classes that are contemplating whether to continue at YES. We know our alums so well that we can balance out who will work well together. Summer Opportunities Bronx Lab strongly encourages students to participate in summer opportunities that allow students to spend an extended period of time in a new environment. Experiences like these help students prepare for the transition to college by experiencing life away from home and with people from different backgrounds. They also provide valuable content for college essays and resumés, which help increase competitiveness. Students also participate in international travel and summer programs on college campuses for high school students. For example, one year students applied for faculty-led summer trips to China and Ecuador, during which they lived with local families and a small group of students spent the summer at Hotchkiss School, an academically rigorous boarding school that runs an environmental sciences program over the summer. Since spots in all of these programs are limited, the process is competitive, and students must apply and demonstrate a strong academic track record to participate. While some summer programs are subsidized, students are expected to pay a portion of the fees through school fundraisers and small contributions from families. For details about YES Prep s summer opportunities program, see Social Readiness Even for students who are academically well-prepared, making the social adjustment to college can be extremely challenging. Many college freshmen and first-generation college-bound students in particular struggle to find their place in an unfamiliar, unstructured environment. College was really different than my perception, reflected one such student. I d heard college was going to just be fun, but immediately I was hearing all these things that were unfamiliar to me, like post-doc and graduate school. I felt totally overwhelmed and guilty for not being able to understand it all. There were so many resources, but it was hard to know where to start or what was available to me. Another student of Latin American background described college as a big culture shock, adding, I would cry every day to my mom on the phone. I felt like I didn t fit in people have different interests, different clothing styles. I m always anxious to go home, to be around other Latinos. At YES Prep, the college advisory curriculum is rooted in an understanding that academic readiness is not the only factor in a student s willingness and ability to complete college. All students participate in Junior and Senior Seminar courses called College Prep 101. These courses simulate life on a college campus and help students anticipate common experiences and challenges. Most YES students have never been away from home, and the prospect of going away to college can create significant anxiety between students and their families. College counselors conduct workshops for seniors and their families to address separation anxiety and the letting go process. The workshop asks students and parents to consider what they fear 10 Bedsworth, W., Colby, S., Doctor, J. (2006). Reclaiming the American Dream. The Bridgespan Group.
10 Paving the Way for College Success Page 10 most about going to college the next year and what students can do to help parents accept that they are leaving. (For more on how schools can help parents through this process, see the Family Engagement section beginning on page 21.) YES teachers and college counselors also recognize that students will be much better equipped to cope with the common college feelings of isolation and homesickness if they do not come as a surprise. As part of College Prep 101 students frequently engage in discussions around these issues, and address questions such as: How do you deal with homesickness? How often are you expected to call home? How much contact do you want to have with your parents? What do you do if you re feeling isolated? Students experiencing academic or emotional challenges rarely access the services available on college campuses to deal with these issues, due to lack of awareness or a sense of shame about seeking out help. The main message we re trying to communicate is that everything you re experiencing at college is normal every college student feels this way, says YES Prep s Kamentz. We really try to normalize the experience, and walk students through what resources they can access when they experience difficulties. The biggest challenge we run into is how we get kids to realize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Exploring Race and Identity Many students are surprised to find out when they set foot on campus that there are few students who look like them or that come from similar backgrounds. For example, a Latina student from YES Prep applied to a highly selective college in the Northeast. When she went to visit the school, she met another Latina student who was also from Houston but came from an affluent college-educated background and spoke no Spanish. The YES student was surprised to discover how different they were, and how much more she actually had in common with this student s white roommate from rural Appalachia because of her fluency in Spanish and her experience These conversations help students break down assumptions, and go into college with an open mind. We help students understand that college is not about being around all people who look like you. Donald Kamentz, Director of College Initiatives, YES Prep doing missionary work in Mexico. YES Prep s Junior and Senior Seminar courses help prepare students for this reality through discussions about race and identity. Students explore questions such as: What is it like to be an under-represented minority on campus? To what extent does my race define me and dictate my circle of friends? Is being a Mexican-American from Houston the same as being a Chicana from East Los Angeles or a Dominican from New York City or a Puerto Rican from Miami? Will I have anything in common with people who are not of my same racial or socioeconomic background? These candid conversations can help break down assumptions that often contribute to a student s sense of isolation on campus. These discussions also provide a powerful opportunity for students to reflect on their beliefs and assumptions about race in a safe environment, and prepare emotionally for the transition to college. Toolkit Highlights: College Knowledge The toolkit at the end of this document includes many resources related to college knowledge. These include: College Awareness Curriculum (Bronx Lab) Junior and Senior Seminar Syllabus (YES Prep) For the full list of tools, see page 22.