Five years after a corporate foundation and an education and health advocacy group launched a program designed to smooth the path from high school to college, data suggest that the initiative can succeed in raising college enrollment -- especially among African-American and Latino students -- largely by reorganizing existing services and coordinating the work of other college access programs.
"It was about identifying a common idea of college readiness," said Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, director of postsecondary success at the development nonprofit FHI 360. In the three regions that participated in the program -- Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami-Dade County -- Nichols-Solomon said education funds invited local stakeholders to answer an overarching question: "What does academic preparation of higher education look like?"
Few school districts would turn down a $5.1 million grant to spend on college preparation, but the Citi Foundation-backed funding came with a twist: It did not promise to build the ultimate college readiness program. FHI 360's broad guidelines asked participants to coordinate academic programs, align K-12 curriculums with postsecondary and workforce requirements, and engage community groups, but each region was free to tailor its program based on the needs of local high school students. The project is known as the Postsecondary Success Collaborative.
“It’s a different way of thinking,” said Rick Moses, director of the Philadelphia Postsecondary Success Program. “We tried to bring in new resources where we could, but we tried to look at existing resources and where we could leverage those. One challenge was getting people to understand that.”
An independent analysis by the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning found the initiative bucked national enrollment trends. From 2009 to 2012, 12 percent more students from the initiative's target high schools enrolled in college. Among black and Latino students at high schools that were deemed to have strongly implemented the initiative's recommendations, that number rose to 39 percent, boosted by a 69 percent increase among black students in Miami-Dade County. Among students who enrolled in college, the analysis also found a 16 percent increase in students who continued as sophomores.
Americans flocked to higher education after the economy crashed in the fall of 2008 to postpone entering a hemorrhaging job market, but the enrollment growth leveled out by 2011. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimated enrollment shrank by 2.3 percent this spring from the previous year, a number that included a 8.7 percent drop among four-year for-profit institutions. Only private four-year institutions posted a positive enrollment growth -- a marginal half-percent.
Common to all three sites involved in the collaborative, which included 10 pilot high schools, was an overall goal to create a college-going culture. In some cases, that meant introducing high school students to the idea of pursuing a college degree as early as ninth-grade orientation.
“They’ve moved from the mindset that it’s not ‘Am I going to college?’ but ‘Where am I going to college?’ ” Moses said.
Daria Sheehan, a senior program officer with the Citi Foundation, said another goal of the pilot project was to help high schools measure if their initiatives led to student progress. FHI 360 therefore created an asset mapping tool where schools rated their existing resources on a scale from zero to three. Some schools used it at the beginning of each new school year to set new priorities, then tracked their progress over the initiative's five-year lifespan. The tool will be made available online for free in the future.
“What they found was that 50 to 75 percent of their strategies were zeroes and ones,” said Linda Lecht, president of The Education Fund, based in Miami. To brainstorm which resources to improve, the education fund brought together local school administrators, university officials and representatives from community-based groups in an advisory board.
The advisory board chose to address “low-hanging fruit -- activities they could get started at right away that would make a splash in the schools and get them excited,” Lecht said. That included “marathon” FAFSA sessions hosted by college financial aid officers, funding for college club field trips to universities across the state, and math courses organized to bridge the gap between high school and college curriculums.
In Philadelphia, two similar advisory boards found that the high school English curriculum was out of alignment with the kind of writing skills expected from college freshmen.
“There was a clear desire on behalf of the teachers, particularly, that they wanted to interface with their counterparts in higher education, so what we did was we brought them together, and they decided they wanted to focus on literacy,” Moses said. Similar to how medical doctors meet in groups to evaluate treatments, the advisory boards created "instructional rounds," where high school teachers and college professors visited each another's classrooms to better understand what was being taught in them. The instructional rounds showed that students in college were more responsible for their own learning, which clashed with the rigid structure of the high school curriculum.
The education fund in San Francisco chose a more data-driven approach, connecting students from certain demographics with community-based organizations shown to be effective at helping them.
Moses described the efforts to organize different schools, organizations and universities as “an ongoing process” where the education fund worked as “a convener and ... a facilitator,” but the results from the three sites suggest the advisory boards were able to pinpoint solutions. In Miami-Dade County, Lecht said the board “realized that it’s not that the high school teachers were not teaching the [math] curriculum or that college professors didn’t have good pedagogy,” but that “the high school curriculum was a mile wide and two centimeters deep.”
“Our strategy was really to evolve the district and the schools,” Lecht said. “FHI did provide technical assistance, but we were the ones on the ground every day doing the work, and that was sort of the beauty of it. They let us create our model.”
Much of the growth in college enrollment benefited the collaborative’s partner universities, as many students ended up enrolling at Temple University, Miami Dade College and the City College of San Francisco.
With the pilot program ending, the education funds said they pledged to continue the trends of the last five years. Moses said the Philadelphia site intends to double the number of high schools in the program from four to eight, and Lecht noted that the new math class has been introduced in more than a dozen high schools.
“What we’ve tried to do, at least in Philadelphia, is build something that can be sustainable,” Moses said. “If all of us move to another position tomorrow, how can we set this up so it becomes part of the fabric of the school?”