Good news on high school graduation rates. Can we extend success through college?

The latest news on increased US high school graduation rates is heartening. But not enough of those gains are propelling students through to college graduation.

In a piece on the Huffington Post, Joy Resmovits sums the situation up nicely: “While students may be graduating high school, fewer than half of those in the class of 2012 were ‘college ready’ as defined by the College Board last fall. This means that without significant changes in the rigor of high school, it will be hard for the nation to achieve Obama’s aspirations.”

Is rigor enough?

Our question is: Is rigor enough? We don’t think so. As a recent New York times profile of three low-income students dramatically illustrated, rigor is only part of the challenge facing many students. Our own experience bears this out. For instance, one of our students took legal custody of her younger siblings just prior to the start of the school year.  She had to quickly move into appropriate housing, enroll her siblings in school  and make sure she started her classes on time. This type of adversity is far from unique among the students we serve.

So what does it take to help ensure that high-potential students facing a wide range of challenges complete college? We believe that some of the most critical work lies in ensuring that students have the range of supports – and knowledge  – they need to overcome nonacademic challenges that can so easily throw them off track.

Helping low-income students achieve high rates of graduation

Nationally, only 19.9 percent of students from the lowest income bracket graduate by age 24 – or within six years of college enrollment (see page 8 of this report).  By contrast, more than 80 percent of Dell Scholars graduate within in six years. Moreover, while the average debt load for new college grads is $25,250, Dell Scholars typically graduate with only $6,500 in debt. The Dell Scholars’ Program has been in place since 2004, and we have provided support to roughly 2,150 scholars at 450 institutions. We often get asked how we help so many kids so effectively – especially with so little overhead (two of us work on the program full-time). Here’s a run-down of our top-three strategies:

1. We set students up to succeed from day one. We look at the Dell Scholars Program as more than a check and more than a scholarship. It’s a process that starts with a scholar’s application and ends at graduation. And the most important thing we do during that process is get to know our scholars early and well.

A student’s application helps us understand the basics: financial background, a baseline understanding of willingness to take on academic challenges and work hard, and a sense of life challenges that may affect future plans, aspirations and character. But the real work begins after selection, when we dive into each student’s particular strengths, needs and challenges.  Based on what we learn about individual needs and challenges, we work with each student to craft a realistic plan for success. We work with them to be sure they understand the financial ramifications of their school choices, that they have strategies for integrating into campus life,  and most importantly, that they have a framework forbalancing their personal and family circumstances with being full-time college students. Once a student has a plan, it’s up to him or her to act on it. We support scholars when they need it (we offer various program resources such as a 24-hour response line, peer mentoring and online scholar community,) but the goal is to help them set up a pragmatic framework for success that they can manage on their own.

2. We empower students to seek help when they need it, work to ensure that we can spot early signs of trouble and support kids with peer contacts they can relate to. We work hard to encourage students to be independent – to be their own Supermen. And the way we look at it, part of that helping students understand when they need help and know how to get it. So we spend a lot of time from high school graduation through the first year of college helping students figure out how to form the relationships they need to advocate for themselves (e.g., finding single points of contact in the financial aid office) and on helping them develop their self-management skills.

We also track early warning signs so we can proactively reach out if we see signs that a student may be falling off track. We track scholars’ academic, financial and situational circumstances in multiple ways:

  • We collect monthly enrollment information via the National Student Clearinghouse to monitor each student’s enrollment status.
  • Scholars provide detailed information on the amount of financial aid they are receiving and the number of hours they must work to cover their cost of attendance.
  • We have a Scholar Performance Index (SPI) that we’ve developed based on data from current and past scholar performance. The SPI gives us a dashboard view that helps us easily identify and anticipate which students may struggle.

Finally, we have Dell Scholar Ambassadors who serve as peer mentors to connect with scholars and help guide them through the transition to college. We’ve found that scholars feel secure talking to peers about how their personal situations may be affecting their school work.

3. We look beyond academics to identify the root-causes of struggles and help students identify steps they can take to address them. A lot of scholarship programs provide kids with academic support – say tutors – for what are really nonacademic problems. We take a different tack. If a student’s grades drop from a B+ to failing, we don’t immediately hook that student up with a tutor. Instead, we try to identify the root causes behind the struggle.

Often, poor academic performance is a reflection of a financial or situational adversity.  Having a multi-dimensional view of the scholar’s situation helps identify the underlying reason a scholar are struggling in the classroom.  We know, for instance, that sending a scholar to extra biology tutoring does nothing to address the stress and pressure a student feels to help support their family because mom or dad has just been laid off. Likewise, a math tutoring session  does little good if the reason student is failing class because they are working 30-plus hours a week.

Why share these best practices? Because I believe that, as a community, scholarship providers can do more than simply fund deserving kids. We can identify and operationalize pragmatic, scalable strategies for helping low-income, high-potential students persist through all the big and small challenges that will inevitably cross their paths (parents’ job losses, broken down cars, sick relatives, expensive books, etc.) and graduate. All it takes is the willingness to look in the mirror and challenge ourselves to make a difference every day.

Read more of Oscar’s posts on college completion.

Learn about the foundations work in college preparation and completion.