Graduation Shouldn't Be Endpoint

Colleges that truly want to help first-generation students need to stay involved as they make their next transitions, write Karen Gross and Ivan Figueroa.

November 3, 2014

Much of the attention in higher education circles focuses on getting more vulnerable students to and through college.  We have finally acknowledged that access to and entry into post-high school education not enough; we need to focus on graduation – whether from a certificate program, a community college or a four-year college or university.  We have targeted improving graduation rates as a goal that symbolizes success, enabling some to claim victory when those rates rise. 

But we are mistaken. We are claiming success too early. This point – which had been gnawing at some of us for months as we have watched and listened to our current seniors – was brought to the fore in Jeff Hobbs' new book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. The story of Robert Peace is poignant, examining how a kid from Newark graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology and ended up murdered in a drug-related crime. The lost potential is agonizing; the pain of Peace’s mother is staggering.

Robert’s story is not unique. Of course, the individual stories are not identical nor necessarily as tragic. But consider the plight of many first-generation, low-income students who leave their homes and land on college campuses (whether elite or not) where some excel academically and then graduate. Normally, we stop the story there and celebrate success.  Since graduation rates are so low for vulnerable students, we assume that the awarding of a degree is the crowning achievement.

In this book and through our lived experiences, certain questions recur: What more could have been done to save Robert?  Could he have been saved if colleges saw their responsibility as extending beyond the moment a degree is awarded? Think about how many high schools consider their jobs done when students get accepted to college and complete high school. Check the box. Move on. But do these high-schoolers actually get to college and graduate? High schools are cutting short the scope of their work.

We think that colleges like the one where we work now have a greater obligation than we realize. We offer our first-generation students a career-launching liberal arts education but we do not address with enough deliberateness how our students will transition from our institution into employment or graduate school. Where will they live? Should they return home? How can they navigate their friendships from before and after college? What about their families back home?

Yes, we have career services offices. Yes, we match academic programs with careers. Yes, we have graduate fairs and job fairs. Yes, we have résumé-writing workshops. Yes, we do mock interviews. We do GRE prep. But what we are missing is what would have helped Robert Peace: an effort to focus on the transition from college to graduate school or the workplace in terms of its psychological dimensions. In the toolbox of skills we provide our first generation, low-income students who are graduating, we have failed to give them the skills to “crosswalk” effectively and smoothly between their past and their present and their future.

We should know better. We have experience with our younger veterans now returning stateside. Many of these veterans understandably struggle to navigate effectively from military life to civilian life. Settling into and then succeeding in college are mighty challenges. This reinforces the need to pay attention to our college seniors – preparing them not just for graduation and a career. We need to help them transition from college back to the “outside” world. Robert Peace was left to figure that pathway out on his own and he failed. Interventions from friends and family did not help. 

We recognize that there is no magic pill here. But, here are two strategies that can help. 

First, if student success has been accomplished on campus by helping students believe in themselves and believe they belong in college, then the mentors who have enabled this to occur need to keep in touch with these students post-graduation – in person, online, via Skype. This is part and parcel of the workload of these mentors. These new graduates need to know that their supporters’ belief in them was not time-delimited and did not end with graduation. Distance does not change, then, the commitment mentors have to their mentees even when those mentors themselves move on to different positions. An online set of modules could be created to achieve this end – engaging graduates and their mentor on a go-forward basis.

Second, it is worth adding the following quasi-mandate for vulnerable students who graduate, outlined to them at the get-go: a commitment that they return to campus and develop a mentor/mentee with a new student who was similar to them? This accomplishes several goals. It gets graduates back to campus, back to a place where they experienced success. It creates an expectation at the beginning that with success comes a commitment to pay it forward. But here is the key: in paying it forward, graduates can appreciate how far they have come, and that in and of itself can shed light on their comfort with their own pathway into the future. Both the graduates and their mentees benefit.

Perhaps there was nothing that would have saved Robert Peace. But whether or not that is true, there is now one college president, one program director and one campus reflecting on how future Robert Peaces could be helped and what is it we can do on our campuses to improve the odds that that difficult post-college transition can be navigated more effectively.

Getting a degree is a major accomplishment; using that degree and finding a place outside the protections of academia where one can flourish and contribute meaningfully to society and handle the complexities of the different worlds in which we all move would be a success. Sadly, this is a victory denied Robert Peace.


Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Ivan Figueroa is director of diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program at the college.

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