Many KIPP charter school alumni face financial hurdles in college, survey shows

ByNick Anderson

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The KIPP public charter school network prides itself on its mission of putting disadvantaged students on the path to a college degree.

But a new survey of thousands of KIPP alumni nationwide has found that many of these students face daunting financial hurdles once they get to college, including worries about where they will get their next meal, and whether they can find work-study jobs and internships in line with their career goals.

The survey of former KIPP students who are now in college offers a window to a crucial slice of the higher education market. The vast majority of KIPP students come from low-income families. Most are Hispanic or African American. Many of their parents do not have college degrees. As a result, these students are a sample of some of the most vulnerable populations on any college campus.

The KIPP Foundation, which supports a network of about 200 schools nationwide, sent surveys via email and text message to about 10,000 former students who finished at least eighth grade in a KIPP middle school, or 12th grade in a high school within the network. The foundation was able to analyze 2,969 answers from KIPP alumni in college. The results, made public Tuesday, found that:

Forty-three percent said they have missed meals to have money for books, fees or other school expenses. And 57 percent worried that food would run out before they got money to buy more.

Forty-one percent of students who qualify for federal work-study programs have been unable to find such a position on campus.

More than two-thirds — 69 percent — of those who worked during the summer were unable to find jobs or internships that dovetailed with their career interests.

“We’re finding that a lot of our alums are not getting the work experiences that are invaluable when you go on to access jobs in this modern economy,” said Richard Barth, chief executive of the foundation. He called that “a huge issue” that the nation needs to solve so that “people from all different economic backgrounds are able to thrive.”

Financial struggles can plague first-generation students even at the most elite colleges. Sometimes their expenses include helping support members of their family, a burden that isn’t often factored into financial aid packages. Sometimes students of modest means take the least-expensive meal plan. Often they accumulate significant debt.

Sherve’ Bell, 22, a 2013 graduate of a KIPP high school in Washington, D.C., said she now attends Oglethorpe University, a private liberal arts college in Atlanta. Bell, who is the daughter of a cosmetologist, said she is the first in her family to go to a four-year college. She qualifies for a federal Pell grant and she has other scholarships. But she also had to take out about $10,000 a year in loans to cover her expenses.

Not having a car in Atlanta makes finding a good job difficult, she said. She is majoring in sociology, with a minor in nonprofit management. She aspires to a career in education, possibly in the nonprofit world. Relevant internships, she said, have been hard to find, although KIPP connections helped her recently with a position in D.C.

Often the most interesting internships don’t pay what she needs. “I was not in position to accept an unpaid internship,” Bell said.

Bobby Hill, 19, a KIPP alumnus from Weldon, N.C., is a sophomore majoring in communication design at the Parsons School of Design. That is part of the private New School in New York City. Hill, the son of a single mother, receives financial aid. But he said he and his mother have taken out about $40,000 in loans. Hill said he recently landed a good job at Columbia University. But he said hunger is a factor in his college life.

“There have been times when I have to debate buying a sandwich or buying a piece of paper for a project,” Hill said. “I’ve gotten used to being able to fight through hunger pangs.” He said he also keeps an eye out for free-food events on campus, a common tactic for students at many colleges.

Barth said such experiences underscore practical issues that colleges and policymakers confront to ensure that all students are on track to earn a degree.

“In many ways, this is a profile of America today — a lot of America,” Barth said. “Are there solutions on these kind of challenges? I think there are.”