News: College Access & Success

'The B.A. Breakthrough' Considers Problem of, Solutions to College Completion

Monday, May 20, 2019  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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“The problem is not college attendance, it’s college completion,” booms the chapter 2 title page of "The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America" in big, bold lettersThe new book, written by Richard Whitmire, an education author and former USA Today editorial writer, is consistently clear about the root causes of and potential solutions to the gap in degree attainment faced by low-income, first-generation students, many of them students of color. Whitmire lays out next steps that nearly every stakeholder in the education ecosystem could take on to drive degree completion.

NCAN members and others in the college access and success field will find a lot to appreciate in this release, although it will more likely affirm what they already believe more than illuminate new strategies. Members will also see plenty of familiar faces mentioned, given that colleagues like Beyond12, the College Advising Corps, Bottom Line, the DC College Access Program, all make cameos.

Head nods will abound when members read quotes like, “I feel like I’m always playing a catch-up game against everyone who has always known what they want to do in life,” and “One thing about being a first-generation student is that every lesson learned is learned the hardest way possible. It’s like you hit a bunch of brick walls before you realize that the door is right over there. It’s like trying to find your way in a dark room.” The information gaps that plague the students most often served by NCAN members are well captured here in all of their frustrating glory.

The book’s chapters focus on the various stakeholders. One chapter lauds charter school networks’ innovations (e.g., building counselor-friendly data systems that promote postsecondary match and identify the likeliest sources of grant aid for students). Another identifies exemplary school districts (e.g., Houston and its EMERGE program). Colleges and universities’ intentional practices toward promoting retention and student belonging and how to scale district/charter collaborations also get time and attention.

Whitmire invests heavily in covering the successes of charter school networks like KIPP (specifically KIPP Gaston in rural Gaston, NC, the experiences of the students and staff at which are threaded throughout the book). He sees some charter networks’ deliberate, relentless focus on college readiness as something that should be modeled by more traditional K-12 school systems, about whose perceived shortcomings he pulls no punches.

K-12 systems’ beliefs about their accountability for students’ postsecondary outcomes is a point of contention here. Whitmire describes how for Rick Cruz, the head of Houston’s EMERGE program, a college counseling program that works with sophomores and juniors, the “more important lift” in his work was “changing the attitudes of many of the district’s high school leaders, who didn’t see many of their students as college material – and certainly saw no reason for them to leave Texas to attend college.” Whitmire goes on to describe how:

“Only recently has college readiness, and more important, college success, come to the attention of K-12 school leaders. For years, it was assumed that responsibility fell to the alumni, their parents, and the universities they attended. It’s only within the past few years, as researchers revealed the dismaying college failure rates of first-generation college-goers, that the attention has turned to K-12 school leaders: Shouldn’t they be taking on some of that obligation?”

Data’s power to change student outcomes and scale student services also earns plenty of highlights. Whitmire asserts, “In data there is power, but with college success data, we’re in a pre-[No Child Left Behind] state of affairs. High schools don’t know – and in many case would rather not know – anything about how their students fare in college. That’s fixable.”

A particularly satisfying anecdote, mostly because it gives voice to so many I have heard in a similar vein, involves College Advising Corps Founder and CEO Nicole Hurd describing how important it is to bring National Student Clearinghouse data to meetings with school leaders considering CAC’s services. These leaders often have a wildly inflated perception of how many of their students are enrolling and persisting after crossing the high school graduation stage.

It isn’t just school leadership’s use of data that gets a nod either. Whitmire rightly notes that, “Generally, high schools recruit college counselors for their empathy skills, the heart and soul of the profession. The plan: Equip those counselors with software tools so they could bring heart, soul – and head – to the profession.” Tools for postsecondary advising that incorporate postsecondary affordability and completion data are key to helping students make the right decisions, and the book chronicles the development of these tools.

"The B.A. Breakthrough" mostly “rests on three legs,” Whitmire concludes: 1) new practices from charter schools, 2) nonprofits “stepping up big time with data-based college counseling for all,” 3) and postsecondary institutions taking ownership of first-generation students’ outcomes, to ensure they walk away with degrees. Beyond these, Whitmire notes, “the element that makes the breakthrough more than a hope, lies in the K-12 years, beginning with the charters and spreading to charter-district collaborations around college success.”

The addendum is a strange one; if charter-district collaborations hold so much promise, why does the breakthrough rest on three legs instead of four? Diving deeper, the vision of a K-12 system with the resources and focus of the best charter school networks seems both inspiringly aspirational and unrealistic at scale. The widespread adoption of KIPP’s college readiness focus is one to hope, but not hold our breath, for.

Given the book’s focus on the roles multiple stakeholders can play, the better path forward would seem to be developing ecosystems between community-based organizations, school districts, and the higher education institutions to which their students matriculate. (To be fair, this is a classic “yes, and” situation, not an “either/or.”) NCAN has increasingly devoted resources and attention toward these ecosystems and partnerships, most recently through our work with the To and Through Advising Challenge and the Rural Student Success Initiative. Our forthcoming strategic plan will devote even more energy toward identifying and learning from the best exemplars across the country.

If little of this is novel to NCAN members, unfortunately too much of it is likely unfamiliar for far too many school and district leaders and policymakers. For the former group, "The B.A. Breakthrough" functions more as a guidebook for promising practices rather than a playbook for implementing them. No matter, there are plenty of NCAN members with an earnest interest in and demonstrated capacity for meaningful school district partnerships that would benefit students. For the latter group – policymakers at the local, state, and national levels – Whitmire’s work is a call to action: First-generation students’ postsecondary prospects in the future can, and indeed must, look drastically different than those facing far too many now.

(Photo by Parker Jarnigan on Unsplash)