Education is crucial to economic opportunity and social mobility, a vital pathway for individuals, especially low-income students, into the middle class. Veteran journalist Richard Whitmore documents how nine charter high school networks serving many low-income students ensure graduates earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, creating a foundation for future success and prosperity.
The average six-year college completion rate for students in the bottom-fourth income bracket not completing high school is 9 percent and for those completing high school, 11 percent. These network completion rates for students attending college at least six years are double or, depending upon the network, four times higher than those averages.
College completion is a far more challenging school success metric than college acceptance. How do these networks do this?
The premier example is KIPP, a national network of 183 charter schools. The KIPP Through College program uses a College Match Framework to counsel students through the college decision process, followed by far-reaching campus outreach through graduation.
KIPP also partners with more than 70 universities that enroll 8 to 10 students from KIPP or similar schools so students have peers with similar backgrounds. KIPP has raised alumni college completion from 33 percent in 2011 to 44 percent in 2014 — improved but still far from its 75 percent goal. It’s an expensive undertaking, averaging, for example, around $2,000 per New York City student.
Other networks have lower-cost approaches, using volunteer charter alumni and mentors to interact regularly with college enrollees.
Still others design inexpensive software for social media and texting to track what assistance students need, monitor if they are on schedule for a diploma, and “nudge” them to complete tasks.
Northeast-based Uncommon Schools has a local college “angel” for each graduate who helps students deal with college challenges.
They also revamped their grades 5-12 instructional program to ensure students maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average, highly correlated with a student’s likelihood of graduating college.
Uncommon Schools students with at least a 3.0 GPA are four times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree as those below a 3.0.
Chicago’s Noble Network has improved the “match” between its students’ background and high school experience, working with smaller institutions, often in the Midwest, like Ohio’s College of Wooster, Michigan’s Albion College, or Indiana’s Holy Cross, where students receive tailor-made support and assistance, usually not found at large institutions.
Noble also has a college seminar class that develops a personalized college website for each student and has tailored assistance and tracking as students complete admission and financial aid forms, work study applications, etc. It’s Summer of a Lifetime program during junior year allows students to spend up to three weeks on college campuses.
California-based Green Dot Schools has a case manager alumni champion for up to 25 students on each campus, assisting students with difficulties they confront.
Whitmire’s exploratory inquiry needs additional rigorous analysis, but he suggests these innovations are “potentially revolutionary.” They develop innovative approaches to ensuring large numbers of low-income students complete college in six years.
A KIPP spokesperson summarizes the main lesson learned, which involves “…shift[ing]…from focusing on college acceptance [to moving] the charter community and beyond to college completion.” So, then, six-year college completion is the new success metric, rather than college acceptance or a high-school degree.
The work of charters in reaching this new success metric is spreading to the traditional school system. United for College Success, a collaboration between KIPP charter and traditional district schools in San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, aims to improve college graduation rates among district school graduates using lessons learned from the KIPP experience.
Whitmire’s analysis is an important first step in identifying America’s great college completion charter and district high schools for low-income students.
He comments that “the civil rights and anti-poverty implications are significant.”
These schools are pointing the way and providing crucial evidence that K-12 education can provide a robust foundation for opportunity, upward mobility, and financial stability.
Bruno Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation K-12 Program.