Helping students beat the odds

These days, it seems nearly every high school serving low-income students can boast of a 100% college acceptance rate. Indeed, it’s a very low bar to clear. Because community colleges and some four-year schools are open-enrollment, achieving a 100% college acceptance rate simply means that you’re able to get everyone to fill out an application.

From that point on is when the real work begins. Just 62% of high school graduates from the lowest income quartile actually matriculate to a college of any type after high school, and just 26% of those that enter will have a bachelor’s degree six years later. Backing these numbers out, only 16% of low-income high school graduates end up with a bachelor’s degree.

Beating the odds

There are, however, schools serving a high proportion of low-income, minority, and first-generation students, whose graduates are earning college degrees at two and three times the national average.

At YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, TX, 41% of graduates go on to earn a four-year degree; 34% of alumni from the Noble Network of High Schools in Chicago earn a bachelor’s degree; and the KIPP schools, historically a network of elementary and middle-schools (though they now have 26 high schools across the country), have a 44% bachelor’s attainment rate for all of the students that graduated from one of their middle schools. All serve a student population in which the vast majority of students are low-income, minority, and first-generation college-goers.

What are these schools doing differently? How are they able to attain the results they do?

Most of these schools earned early praise for high test scores, following some variant of the “No Excuses” model of structured discipline, data-driven instruction, extended learning, and frequent-testing. But all soon discovered that when the goal is college graduation, a good test score isn’t nearly enough.

College Matching and GPA

A 2009 book called Crossing the Finish Line made headlines as the authoritative study on college success. Three researchers used an enormous data set of students from across the U.S., tracking them from 9th grade through to college graduation, to figure out which students graduate from which colleges and why.

Two central findings emerged from this book. The first is that whether or not a student graduates from college depends, in large part, on where she attends. Specifically, students who undermatch, who attend a less selective college when they could have been admitted to a more selective college, are far less likely to graduate than those that attend a match college or an overmatch college. More selective institutions have far more resources to devote to student success, are filled with more motivated, higher achieving peers, and have far higher graduation rates than less selective colleges.

The second major finding is that while we often measure “college-ready” by SAT scores, it turns out that a student’s high school grades are a far more powerful predictor of eventual college success. This is likely because GPA measures a broad composition of academic habits and non-cognitive skills – things like conscientiousness, self-advocacy, and the ability to persist through challenges – that really matter for success, both in high school and in college.

All of the charter school networks achieving extraordinary college completion rates have taken these two findings to heart.

Focus on college completion

To avoid undermatching, students at these schools don’t just apply to any college, but apply to a few really selective “reach” schools, a few “match” schools that fit their academic profile, and a few “safety” schools where they’re all but guaranteed admission. And students and counselors rigorously evaluate colleges based on two major factors: historical six-year minority graduation rates, and the amount of need-based aid they typically award low-income students.

These schools have also placed significant emphasis on developing in their students the non-cognitive skills critical for college success. Looking to research in education psychology and college persistence, KIPP developed a framework for teaching 8 essential non-cognitive skills, YES Prep developed a 9-12 curriculum of non-academic skills, and schools are now learning that the right school culture can send small, subtle messages that can positively shift the student mindsets needed for academic success.

As these networks show, if we change the goal from college access to college completion, the work of high schools needs to change. Instead of test scores and college acceptances, we must focus on equipping students with the broad range of skills they’ll need for college success, and getting them to the right college that will support them through to college graduation. Only then will they have a shot at beating the odds.



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