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Inside ‘The B.A. Breakthrough’: Richard Whitmire’s New Book Uncovers a Sea Change of Success Happening for First-Generation College Graduates

By The 74 | March 12, 2019

America’s poorest students have an approximately 11 percent chance of graduating from college within six years. In his forthcoming book, The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America, veteran journalist and author Richard Whitmire argues that improving those odds could be “the most effective anti-poverty program ever launched in this country.”

The B.A. Breakthrough, inspired by Whitmire’s acclaimed 2017 series for The 74, The Alumni, takes readers to the places across the country where that catalytic change is happening — K-12 schools using data-smart strategies to get students to and through college; elite colleges accepting once-disparaged community college transfers by the thousands and providing unprecedented supports to first-generation students on campus; innovative nonprofits changing the culture of college counseling in under-resourced high schools across the nation.

The book, to be published by The 74, will be available for purchase and download in early April. An accompanying microsite will also feature excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos, and additional data behind the book; you can preview the site at The74Million.org/Breakthrough. (To get more information about the book’s release and its findings, sign up for The 74 newsletter.)

The book’s foreword is written by Daniel R. Porterfield, president of The Aspen Institute and former president of Franklin & Marshall College, a pioneer in accepting and supporting first-generation, low-income students on its liberal arts campus. “Whitmire has authored a timely and important book,” Porterfield writes, “because he drives home a critical point that matters for students, colleges, and society: that we are learning steadily, and pretty quickly, what works in educating and propelling first-generation students into college opportunity and then sustaining their growth in and through college.”

The B.A. Breakthrough is a story about low-income students taking a leap forward in their college success. Whitmire chronicles three factors contributing to the paradigm shift, exploring each in detail throughout the book.

First, there’s a growing number of colleges that have stepped forward to accept responsibility for not just admitting these students to college but also ensuring they succeed once they get there. Second, there’s a surge in activity from advocacy groups, nonprofits, and philanthropies that sense a win here and know exactly where to place their bets to make an impact, such as funding desperately needed, smart college counseling at high schools where the counselor-to-student ratio can be 1 to 369. And third, Whitmire looks at high schools across the country, many of them belonging to high-performing public charter networks, that have figured out how to prepare first-generation students to succeed in college, and then how to track them through college to make sure that happens.

The real catalyst to this college breakthrough, Whitmire argues, stems from K-12 education and a growing awareness that high schools have a stake in their students’ fate beyond senior year. Some notable moments from his reporting:

—On smarter college counseling in high schools: At the first San Antonio high school to collaborate on college success, the percentage of graduates accepted to four-year colleges doubled in the first year.

—On improving outcomes for community college transfers: Each year, roughly 3,000 students from Northern Virginia Community College transfer to George Mason University, and within four years, 74 percent earn bachelor’s degrees.

—On school networks making college-for-all real: The percentage of freshman entering the University of Texas Rio Grande, where many graduates from IDEA Public Schools choose to attend, who earn their bachelor’s degree within six years is 40 percent — double that of many commuter schools.

—On colleges and universities supporting low-income students: At the University of South Florida, the six-year graduation rate for low-income Pell Grant students is 68 percent — 1 percent higher than the rate for its students not getting federal financial aid.

Whitmire also captures a series of unforgettable moments that have collectively contributed to ending diploma disparities for first-generation students:

A fortuitous visit by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp to two upstart teachers in rural Gaston, North Carolina. So impressed was Kopp that a phone call was made and KIPP Gaston was created on land where sharecroppers’ cabins once stood.

An innovative partnership between IDEA public schools and College for America at Southern New Hampshire University that catches college dropouts.

The invention of College Signing Days that have made college acceptance as big as making it to the pros.

A campaign to embrace diversity and equity on the picturesque (and once overwhelmingly white) Pennsylvania campus of Franklin & Marshall College.

A $375 million gift from Michael Bloomberg to make sure top, low-income students go to selective colleges.

An “aha” moment in a Taco Bell parking lot that sent scores of college grads into high schools to do college counseling.

A Texas charter network that took its college-for-all mantra and made it real for first-gen, Hispanic students.

A little-known software engineer who created a bot to match high schoolers to their best-fit college.

A college success collaboration in San Antonio spreads to New York City, Miami, Newark, and across California.

But the real breakout stars of The B.A. Breakthrough are the students themselves.

Woven throughout the book are the stories of dozens of students across America who are living examples of the breakthrough Whitmire chronicles, especially a small group of KIPP graduates from rural Gaston, North Carolina, now in their late 20s. Whitmire brings to life their stories, and lets us hear their voices, grounding his meticulous reporting in the first-person triumphs and tribulations of a new generation of college graduates who are finding their way in the world.

Richard Whitmire previously wrote for USA Today’s editorial page and served as president of the national Education Writers Association and as a fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Emerson Collective. A writing fellowship from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds The 74, helped to make The B.A. Breakthrough possible.

Whitmire is also the author of The Founders, published by The 74, On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the Envelope and The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On the Nation’s Worst School District. (Whitmire also wrote Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons From an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind and co-authored The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools.)

The book will be available the first week of April for purchase online in an e-book format and hard copy.

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