How graduates of Boston’s public schools are getting through college

A new report gives voice to those who are struggling and those who are succeeding

June 7, 2011

Boston – In a city that has a sky-high demand for workers with postsecondary degrees, college completion rates for graduates of the Boston Public Schools are far below the national average for students who don’t graduate from Boston’s prestigious exam schools.  Only 28 percent of non-exam school students from the class of 2003 who enrolled in college had obtained a degree six years later, according to a 2010 Boston Private Industry Council report.

Insights into the kinds of hurdles faced by these graduates is the focus of a new report from the Boston Foundation and the Boston Higher Education Partnership titled: How Students Are Making It: Perspectives on Getting Through College from Recent Graduates of the Boston Public Schools .

Based on a survey and in-depth interviews with students, the report explores the similarities and differences among students who are struggling academically and those who are succeeding in college.  Through a series of moving quotes, it reflects the complex lives of these students, many of whom live at home and continue to play demanding roles in their families.  On-campus and off-campus factors are taken into account, including academic preparedness, college supports, full-time and part-time jobs and living situations.

Key Findings of  How Students Are Making It

Based on an analysis of the interview data, the new study produced three key findings:

Self-Management Skills: Many students who were academically succeeding linked their success to effectively practicing self-management skills, including managing their time, studying effectively, persisting despite discouragement, and seeking and utilizing academic support.

Choosing a balanced course schedule was one of the skills related to time management:  “This semester, I decided to try to challenge myself,” said one student.  “I know I should have taken easy classes to boost my GPA.  But I’m trying to get my requirements out of the way, so I just took the classes that I needed, which wasn’t such a good idea.  It’s really difficult.  And at mid-terms, I had F’s.”

Off-Campus Factors: Two off-campus factors, family and employment, played important roles in students’ college experiences.  Many found their families supportive—but others felt they were not supported by their families and some had obligations at home that interfered with their studies.  Most of the students worked and many described their jobs as supporting their educational goals, especially on-campus jobs.  Others had to work so many hours that their job detracted them from their educational goals.

Some students who were considered to be “strugglers,” had obligations to their families that hampered their studies.  “My home life is what is causing me to struggle in college,” said one student.  “Work is fine.  I’ll have to work later in life.  But I don’t feel like I should have all this responsibility at home.  I’m cooking and cleaning and making sure my siblings and cousins do their homework.  I’m tired by the time I get to my homework.”

Others felt support from their family, including one student whose sister was helping him: “My sister has single-handedly helped me.  She says, ‘If I can’t motivate my brother, I can’t motivate other kids.’  She has really pushed me.”

Working was another factor that influenced the success of a number of students.  “My biggest struggle has been working 60 hours a week and going to school full-time,” said one student.  “If I was able to focus only on school or making myself a better person, I would have better grades.”

Academic Advice and Information: Students of varying levels of academic achievement found it difficult to obtain clear and accurate academic information and advice when they needed it.

A number start out with a deficit of information, including those who lacked college knowledge when they started college.  One said: “Professors expect people out of high school to know everything.  But people come from different backgrounds.  Some don’t know anything.  I didn’t learn some things until I was a junior or senior that I wished I’d known as a freshmen... Like how to write research papers using APA or MLA, financial aid stuff, more feedback on degree application.  I’m just beginning to learn this.”


The study’s findings suggested four recommendations for improving students’ chances to complete college that will be useful to higher education practitioners and policymakers, high school staff and others concerned about the low college completion rates of Boston’s graduates:

  1. Self-Management Skills: Help students, especially those at risk of not completing degrees, develop the self-management skills they need to successfully achieve their college goals
  2. College Information and Advice: Improve the structure and delivery of orientation, advising, and support programs to ensure all students, especially those identified as at risk, develop the college knowledge they need to succeed.  
  3. Employment: Expand the opportunities for on-campus employment and college-friendly, off-campus employment. 
  4. Families: Provide families of first-generation students with a working understanding of the benefits of completing college for their children, the nature of the college experience, and how they can support their children’s success.

The new report builds on a the findings of a 2009 report, titledWho’s Making It: The Academic Achievement of Recent Boston Public Schools Graduates in the Early College Years , which looked at exactly what happens to Boston’s students during their first two years of college—a time of difficult and sometimes impossible transition.  Not surprisingly, that report found that students with more rigorous high school preparation, such as those attending exam schools, had much higher rates of persistence, progress and performance in college.
“For a city with a declining birthrate, an aging population and global competition for skilled workers, the low college completion rates of Boston’s graduates is the worst possible news,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of theBoston Foundation.  “This report takes an in-depth look at some of the students behind the statistics—and the numerous and daunting challenges they face.  Its insights will be invaluable for all of those who are dedicated to helping Boston’s graduates achieve a higher-education degree.”

Success Boston

Some good news reflected in the report is that whenMayor Thomas M. Menino learned about the low college completion rates ofBoston Public Schools graduates—in 2008, when the first report on the topic was released by the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) and theBoston Foundation—he responded swiftly.  He issued a community wide challenge for an initiative that would prepare far more of Boston’s students to earn a college degree.

CalledSuccess Boston, it has the goal of helping students get ready, get in and get through college—and already is having some success through a case management approach to working with students.  The initiative’s major partners include the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Foundation and the Boston Private Industry Council—and it has been endorsed by 38 Boston area colleges and universities.  Nonprofit partners include ACCESS Boston, Boston PIC, Bottom Line, Freedom House, Hyde Square Task Force andTERI.


TheBoston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $796 million.  In Fiscal Year 2010, the Foundation and its donors made more than $82 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of close to $83 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes.  TheBoston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges.  For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit or call 617-338-1700.