Charter schools want to share how they are helping more low-income students finish college

ByRichard Whitmire (op-ed)

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On the surface, we’re doing a reasonably good job encouraging ever more low-income students to enroll in college. Problem is, the percentage of those students who end up with actual degrees remains stuck at near-failure levels, about one in 10.

Given the earnings boost a college degree offers, this failure probably constitutes the biggest single roadblock preventing a solution to one of our thorniest social challenges, rising inequity in income and wealth— a problem that should make all Americans uneasy about our future.

Given all that, you might be surprised to learn there’s a solution that’s both affordable and highly likely to produce results for low-income students. High school counselors adopting these changes are likely to boost college success rates (as defined by earning a bachelor’s degree within six years) by 5 to 10 percentage points. In just one year, a high school here in San Antonio using these methods at a high-poverty high school doubled the number of students enrolling in four-year colleges, which have significantly higher graduation rates.

The good news is that several major school districts — New York City, Miami, Newark, New Jersey and the Aspire charter network in California — gathered here last month to learn the same methods San Antonio is using.

Turning college counseling into a science

The remedy, developed at several of the nation’s top charter school networks, takes the art of college advising and injects real science, software programs that match each graduating senior with the college that’s both most affordable and most likely to ensure the student comes away with a degree. That’s harder than you might imagine, so the software really helps.

There’s a lot charter networks still haven’t figured out about educating low-income students, but because the charter leaders promised parents their children would be more likely to win college degrees if they signed up with their schools, the networks did something traditional school districts never considered their responsibility: they tracked their alumni into and through college, collected data on which pathways did and didn’t work, then adjusted both their teaching practices and college matching guidance to bolster success.

The result? My reporting indicates that their student success rates, depending on the network, are three to five times higher than their low-income peers who didn’t attend the networks. That’s striking, and now the networks are on a mission to share their findings and software with everyone, both regular districts and other charter networks.

That’s what took place here last month at a gathering funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Each of the school systems sent counselors to receive the tools that the national KIPP charter network, 224 schools educating 96,000 students, uses in KIPP Through College. The program advises students on which college is best for them and then tracks them through college to prevent dropouts due to preventable factors.

For two days I watched as KIPP counseling experts at this kickoff of the College Counseling Institute laid bare their College Match program — what worked, didn’t work, and what had to be tweaked to work.

So why aren’t more school districts that educate low-income students doing the same? There are two answers. First, college success has never been part of their mission. Isn’t that up to the students and the colleges? Typically, school districts have a rough idea how many of their students enroll in college (mostly self-reported, and therefore a bit iffy), but have no idea how many actually show up for freshman year classes, and definitely no idea how many end up with degrees. That has to change.

The second reason is a tougher nut to crack: the antipathy school districts have toward charters, schools they say drain resources by taking their students. The resentment runs deep. Even a clear win-win like this — where they lose no students to charters, their alumni are more likely to earn degrees and outside funders are likely to step in to help — seems like a bridge too far.

Public schools should jump at this tool

Here in San Antonio the collaboration happened only because a new superintendent, Pedro Martinez, was determined to use every tool possible to turn around this perpetually low performing district, including working with “dreaded” charters. His partnership with KIPP appears to be paying off. It drew $8.4 million in corporate sponsorship to hire college guidance counselors, a win that New York, Miami, Newark and Aspire hope to achieve as well.

But even after it was clear the San Antonio-KIPP collaboration was working, both in boosting college enrollment and drawing philanthropy money, months went by and according to Martinez, not a single superintendent asked him for advice. Until now.

Maybe this new collaboration is a sign that things are changing. The college success training isn’t limited to this one meeting; it’s a two-year partnership. In New York, Miami, Newark and California, the training will continue and be put to use this fall with juniors in those districts.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this development. Maybe there’s hope that we can worry a bit less about our future.

Richard Whitmire is an education writer working on a book about how to boost college success rates for low-income students. Follow him on Twitter: @richardwhitmire