Five realities facing college freshmen | City of Ideas

Posted 09/12/2013 by Paul S. Grogan

First - a tough one:

1. Many of them might never see graduation day.

The Success Boston program was born of a Boston Foundation sponsored report in 2008 that uncovered a sobering truth. Researchers from Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies found that while we rightly celebrated improvements in the Boston Public Schools' high school graduation rate, we neglected another fact - that only about a third of those BPS grads who entered higher education actually finished

70 = the city's goal college graduation rate for BPS graduates, set by Mayor Menino in 2008

The report inspired Boston Mayor Thomas Menino not to point fingers, but take action. He called together a number of education leaders, philanthropic leaders and civic organizations and laid out a bold goal - to double the BPS college completion rate within a decade from 35 percent to 70 percent. His challenge led to the birth of Success Boston, a unique partnership among the City of Boston, the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Foundation, the University of Massachusetts Boston and dozens of other colleges, universities and service providers. Success Boston provides more intensive, targeted support to about 300 BPS graduates annually - in an effort to prepare them for and support them through their college careers - to "get ready, get in, and get through" in Success Boston lingo.

2. There are hundreds of thousands of reasons to start and finish higher education. Dollars.

The importance of high school graduation for future earnings is well covered. But in a city like Boston, especially, there is a remarkable lifetime earnings gap between those who start college and those who finish it. A four-year college graduate will earn $800,000 more in their lifetime than someone who starts college but doesn't finish it. Our economy rewards those with education and training to succeed, and more than ever it punishes those without it. There are those today who suggest a college education isn't worth the price tag - While clearly we need to worry about college affordability, there is no doubt of a degree's long-term financial impact.

3. Dropping out is not only about academics. Or only about finances.

Looking out at 100 faces, there are 100 individual stories - and thousands of potential reasons that students will fail to complete their degrees. But there are key areas of focus. 

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We know that too many Boston Public Schools students come to higher education in need of remedial classes - though we are improving - and nothing drains financial resources in a more damaging way than paying for (or borrowing for) remedial courses that add to student costs without moving them closer to graduation. Our April 2013 report on community colleges noted that students who needed the most remedial coursework were the least likely to graduate, and when large percentages of urban district students need remedial work - well, you do the math.

But it isn't just academics. It can be finances. I mentioned college affordability above, but for many students, it's not the financial costs of schooling on its own - it's the challenges of budgeting. It's the challenges of navigating the financial aid system. It's the challenges of being an ID number in a system, when what you really need is a captain to help you navigate, connect you with the right people and help you at those key moments when a confusing form, an unclear requirement or a lost T pass can be just enough to push you over the brink.

4. The right interventions and support systems can make a difference.

If the problems that lead to dropping out are so individualized, it makes sense that a solution tailored to addressing those individual problems might be the best solution. That doesn't mean huge bureaucracies designed to address every problem, nor does it mean creating a system that can solve every problem before it starts. 

Success Boston

It means having an advocate. Key to the success of Success Boston is that each student has a known list of resources, including a coach, they can call on for assistance when they hit one of the myriad challenges that lead to dropping out. That advocate, or coach, in turn knows his or her way around the system. They work with college administrators to solve problems. They connect students with the people they need to know in order to solve their own problems. But they know the students, and more importantly, the students know them - and know that the coach is on their side. It may not seem like much - but that connection is proving to be a powerful tool. Success Boston students were as much as 20 percentage points more likely to stay in school for their first two years of college than other BPS graduates.

5. We can win.

The data are promising, for Success Boston and for the district as a whole - and Mayor Menino deserves a hat tip for bringing us together to tackle the issue. College completion rates are up, the number of BPS students starting their college careers in remedial classes is down, and the number of students staying in - year after year - on their way to a degree is strong and we hope getting stronger.

Looking around the Clark Athletic Center was a look at our future - young people of different cultures, different backgrounds, with the same dream - a college degree. We're making an investment with our city, school, nonprofit, college and university partners in ensuring they get there. When you think about the future impact a college degree can have on earnings, opportunities and families - it's an investment that's sure to pay great dividends.

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