graduationRecognizing that there is a story to be told about students beyond what is reflected on academic profiles, Southern Vermont College partnered with ISA and two other institutions to embark on an experiment that consisted of a change in the admission paradigm designed to select and support vulnerable students who ordinarily would not meet the entrance requirements. The University flipped the admission process by allowing the sending schools to serve as the college admission team.

The Academy for Young Writers has been a participant in this Mountaineer Scholars Program since it was first initiated.

To date, 19 of the 22 ISA students who were selected for and supported by the program are still in college or have graduated–  86%! Only 2 students have dropped out, less than a 10% college drop-out rate. The third student transferred to another college for its sports programs but also graduated in 4 years.

This is remarkable.

I want to stress that graduation from college is the desired outcome, not merely enrolling in college and never graduating. I agree with those who proclaim that debt and no degree are a toxic combination. And, I doubt if there are any parents who would disagree.

So, the question is, “What do schools need to do to dramatically increase the number of low-income high school students who enroll in and graduate from college?”

It’s not easy. Believing it’s the right thing to do, is necessary but not sufficient.

Three components of a succesful college ready programSchools need to develop and implement a system that addresses such college inhibitors as poor academics, feelings of not belonging, and financial issues. Note: Click on the graphics to enlarge them.

That system should include 3 components: a Pre-College component, a Bridge to College component and an In-College component.

Pre-college ComponentThe Pre-College Component should include such strategies as those listed on the screen. However, I would like to focus on just 3 of those:

First:  Do students have sufficient opportunities to develop and apply higher order thinking across the curriculum? This requires assessing and strengthening the school’s current college preparatory instructional program. This means asking such questions as:

  • Do they have sufficient opportunities for extended analytic writing in all curriculum areas?
  • Do they read complex texts and build the reading skills necessary for the demands of college texts?
  • Do students have sufficient opportunities to engage in discussions where they learn effective augmentation skills and use evidence to support their perspectives?

Secondly, embedding non-cognitive skills and behaviors for college readiness into the academic program.

This is important because students who are well prepared academically for college struggle because they lack certain social, emotional and non-cognitive skills. They would be much better prepared if while in high school they were provided class assignments that give them opportunities to learn develop and internalize such non-cognitive skills such as organization, time management, perseverance and self-management.

And I know some of you have been focusing on creating a culture and strategies to foster growth mindset. Carol Dweck, who conducted research on mindset, says that if we change students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities– we could boost their achievement. She points out that growth mindset isn’t just about effort, though effort is important, it’s about learning and achieving. Dweck says it’s about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter by trying new strategies and seeking input when they’re stuck.

I asked Ivan Figeroa, the Director of the Mountaineer Scholars Program at Southern Vermont College, why he believes some students make it in spite of the odds. He remarked that, “Many times these students question if they belong. If they are good enough, if they deserve to be here to get an education. I remind them, he said, that people with good intentions stepped out and invested in them and that no one places money in a bag with holes in it. These students are extraordinary, stubborn (an important trait) he said. All their lives they’ve had to struggle, be creative, be fast on their feet, adapt—all the while not realizing that is what a learner does.”

And finally, I would like to say a few words about the importance of schools needing to establish a 4-year college access program that provides students and families the knowledge they need about admission, enrollment and retention.

It is important that counselors and advisors help students make the right college match, considering personal interests, college majors, and colleges that provide the kind of supports they need. Low-income students and students of color are barely represented among the top tier colleges. Students who are well matched for the top tier, so called elite colleges, should be supported in attending those schools. The data shows that most low income students who attend top colleges thrive, with graduation rates at 84%, slightly lower than the overall rate of 85%.

There has also been a frenzy lately to steer students to enroll in 2-year community colleges and technical schools. There is nothing wrong with students going to 2-year schools, as long as students see their attendance as steeping stones to associate degrees and eventual enrollment in 4-year institutions, where the greatest opportunity lies. The completion rates at 2-year schools and community colleges is dismal— less than 30%.

And finally, I want to make a brief comment about financial aid because it is often the number one reason that students drop out of college.  Parents and students need to understand how to complete federal and individual and how to complete appropriate forms. Studies show that in 2014, 1.4 million high school graduates didn’t fill out a FAFSA application. It is believed that 56% of them would have been Pell eligible. You must make sure that all your students apply for the Pell grant and all other grant and scholarship opportunities.

Bridge to CollegeThe Bridge to College Component will support students’ transition from college acceptance to college enrollment.

Although under-served students will be admitted to competitive 4-year colleges, it is not unusual for them to fall through the cracks between admission and enrollment and never enroll. Schools need to develop a set of activities during this period of time between college acceptance and enrollment. School counselors and advisors should check in with families to address any challenges, worries, and concerns regarding the transition, the time line, and separation. In many instance when students are the first in their families to attend college, there is often anxieties and adjustments about their leaving home.

It is helpful to also consider creating a College Summer Bridge Program which is designed to occur prior to the fall semester that students will enter college have been shown to strengthen students’ connections to their college and adjustment to college expectations and culture.

in-college componentAnd lastly, the In-College Component which will support student retention and success in college.

Here are the strategies that Southern Vermont used that resulted in high graduation and persistence rates:

  • Dedicated College Counselor/Advisor at each partner college; someone skilled at supporting the needs of the students-advising them on their academic load, supporting them with family issues and school adjustment and social issues
  • High quality financial aid package (basically debt-free)
  • Continued Communication between students and their school-based counselors
  • Cohort development and support
  • Student integration into the college community
  • Summer Internships and employment

I hope you take a little time during Team Time to consider where your school is in terms of College for All and what actions you need to take.