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Learning Curve

Colleges pledge to graduate more low-income students

Amy Scott Dec 4, 2014
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Hundreds of college leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. Thursday, armed with ideas to tackle one of higher education’s thorniest issues.  Just 1 in 10 people from low-income families has a college degree by age 25, according to the White House,  compared to half of people from wealthier families.

This is the second summit the Obama Administration has held this year that focuses on getting more low-income kids across the college finish line.  

Among the participants is Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, in Washington, D.C., where only around 35-40 percent of the school’s low-income students graduate on time. The college aims to raise that to 60 percent.  

One step is a new partnership with D.C. Public Schools to better prepare students in math.

“We get a lot of students who want to be nurses, but they have no idea how much math and science nurses have to have, so they’re unable to do well in those courses,” McGuire says. “If we could prepare students better starting in middle school and high school, we’d have better completion rates in college.”

Other initiatives announced today focus on improving college counseling in high schools, where the average counselor serves hundreds of students and has little training in college advising.

“Often school counselors only have their own personal experience to draw from,” says Alice Anne Bailey with the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit group that works with southern states to improve public education.

The group’s College and Career Counseling Initiative trains school counselors in 14 states to help students through the process of preparing for and applying to college. Today the group announced an expansion of that program.

At the college level, leaders pledged to work together to help students graduate once they get in the door. The University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities, pledged to graduate an additional 68,000 students in the next decade.

The alliance was created to share ideas, says Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University.  

“We’re trying to actually produce real evidence of what works, as opposed to just doing this shotgun approach of everybody’s going to make a commitment and try something,” Becker says.

One approach that’s catching on: big data.

In a little over a decade, Georgia State has raised its graduation rate from around 30 percent to more than 50 percent, Becker says, partly by analyzing patterns to predict which students are at risk of dropping out, and then stepping in to help them. 

A separate group of 14 state college and university systems also plans to use so-called predictive analytics to help students stay on track, according to the White House.

Trinity Washington University’s Pat McGuire had been critical of the Obama Administration’s previous efforts. The first summit in January favored Ivy League colleges and other elite schools, she says.

 “Just because a school is wealthy and prestigious doesn’t mean they’ll do a good job with a low-income student,” says McGuire. 

And just because hundreds of college leaders pledge to improve college completion rates doesn’t mean it will be easy to move the needle.

The issues that get between students and college degrees have never been more complex or expensive to resolve. 

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