Could You Lend Us a Hand?

It's time for higher ed to get serious about working with high schools, writes Scott Mendelsberg.

April 24, 2009

Denver Public Schools recently became only the fourth school district in the country to track its graduates up to six years after they leave high school. This took courage because, as expected in any poor, minority urban district, the results were abysmal. In a district where first-grade classes average just over 5,000 students, the number of graduates in the monitored class receiving any type of college certificate or degree within six years of high school was 539. As the former principal of two high-poverty Denver high schools, these numbers fail to surprise me, but they do make me angry. As a relatively new staff member of the Colorado Department of Higher Education who has battled nose-to-nose with college presidents unwilling to reach out to kids not usually seen as college material, it makes me wonder – when will more colleges realize this is their problem too?

Denver’s Class of 2002 begin in first grade with 5,152 students and, by fall of grade 11, was down to slightly below 4,000, a not atypical decline in numbers. In the spring of 2002, 2,854 students graduated. Of those graduates, a third would enroll in college within a year and, within six years, 1,777 would have spent at least one month in a two-year or four-year institution of higher education. Only 149 low-income students would earn a college degree of any kind, from a one-year certificate to master’s level. Keep in mind the student poverty rate in Denver Public Schools is 65 percent. The other 390 to earn a degree were not low-income students. Oh, and another 291 graduates were still in college, six years later.

These numbers are appalling. Denver Public Schools’ graduation rate of 52 percent is shameful. But so is the fact that nearly 1,800 students enrolled in college, attended for at least a month and, six years later, only a quarter of those students have anything to show for it. A six-year time frame, rather than four years, was used because that’s considered the national standard for college completion. I don’t doubt this to be true. In our state, the University of Colorado at Boulder – considered our premiere public institution – has a four-year completion rate of 41 percent. At Metropolitan State College in the heart of Denver, the rate is a ghastly 6 percent.

The answer can no longer be to point a finger – pick a finger – toward K-12 education, though it certainly is a large factor. There are ways to improve. But there has to be a real commitment from both sides. I now run the federally funded program GEAR UP for the state of Colorado. Yes, it’s a program that has been around for awhile and yes, results in some states aren’t exactly knock-your-socks-off news. Hold on, though, because in our state, it’s shaping up into something else.

We began working with more than 500 low-income sixth-graders across Colorado in the fall of 2004 and will follow them into college. This school year, 79 percent of those students – who are now high school sophomores – are currently enrolled in or have completed a college course. In contrast, only 7 percent of the non-GEAR UP students in those same high schools are receiving that early exposure to higher education.

Not only are Colorado GEAR UP students taking college courses, they’re succeeding in them. In the fall of 2008, 15 GEAR UP students at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver enrolled in Psychology 101 taught by Parker Wilson, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. Fourteen of the 15 students passed, for a success rate of 93 percent. One student flunked for failing to turn in a required research paper. The average grade earned by those students was a B. That’s the same average grade earned that semester by UC-Denver students taking Psych 101.

To participate in Colorado GEAR UP, students must come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Most students will be the first in their families to go to college. Convincing Colorado colleges to join this program was not easy. In each site, some professors thought the idea of high school sophomores -- particularly these high school sophomores -- in college classes was absurd. But there was at least one person in each site willing to give it a try. Community colleges were the most interested, and some four-year institutions have come on board. Not all of them. One president flat-out refused, adamant that this was not the mission of his institution. His students, by the way, have a four-year completion rate in the single digits.

Let’s face it. This should be a slam dunk for all college presidents. We serve a population that few of these institutions have successfully tapped into. If one of our students takes a course from them as a sophomore, another two or three classes as a junior and even more as seniors, the relationship is already built for the full college load. More importantly, having that many courses under their belts should help students flow through the pipeline faster, which will grow graduation rates – for high schools and for colleges.

We believe a vital part of our program is the early connection, starting in grade 6, between our students and our advisors. The advisor has a lower student-counselor ratio, at 150:1, than most public middle schools nationally can afford. Advisors are responsible for meeting with each student at least twice a month. If a student is struggling academically or socially, the frequency increases. Advisors initially meet with sixth-graders to discuss traditional concerns such as grades, attendance and behavior. Where Colorado GEAR UP differs from traditional counseling practice is in the seventh grade, when advisors begin a curriculum that addresses different topics each month. These topics range from grade point averages to the importance of transcripts to college entrance exams.

Our surveys of GEAR UP students in grade 9 and their classmates not in the program show marked differences in knowledge about financial aid, college entrance requirements and expectations in achieving post-secondary degrees. The percentage of low-income GEAR UP students who reported they expect to earn at least an associate’s degrees was 87 percent, compared to 73 percent of their same-age classmates from all income levels. Also, 72 percent of GEAR UP ninth-graders reported knowledge about college entrance requirements compared to 50 percent of their non-GEAR UP classmates. And 76 percent of GEAR UP students said they know about college financial aid compared to 40 percent of their non-GEAR UP peers.

We’re even changing the conversations our students have with their families. In the ninth-grade surveys, 88 percent of GEAR UP students said they had talked to their parents about college that fall. Of the non-GEAR UP students, 72 percent reported having those conversations. Finally, our GEAR UP students are staying on grade levels at higher rates than their classmates from similar economic backgrounds – and in most cases, they’re being promoted on grade level at higher rates than their peers from all income levels.

President Obama, in his recent speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that, “In just a single generation, America has fallen from 2nd place to 11th place in the portion of students completing college. That is unfortunate but it’s by no means irreversible. With resolve and the right investments, we can retake the lead once more … with the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.” I believe this can be done. But K-12 and higher education will need to work together to get there.


As the principal of Denver’s drop-out retrieval high school, Scott Mendelsberg created a program putting his students into college classes. While leading another high-poverty high school, he launched College Now, a dual enrollment high school/college program that state lawmakers have voted to expand across Colorado. He is now executive director of Colorado GEAR UP.


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