Golston: The College Bribery Scandal Shined a Light on Privilege. Here Are 3 Themes That Shine a Light on Equity for Low-Income Students

Teen students take a tour of the University of Southern California. (Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

You’ve seen the headlines and watched the TV segments. The largest college admissions scandal in recent memory has implicated Hollywood celebrities and industry titans who allegedly went to extraordinary lengths to get their children into elite colleges. While this scandal is deeply troubling, perhaps the silver lining is that the news has sparked conversation about the systemic (and legal) ways higher education reinforces privilege and limits access for the low-income and first-generation students who rely on education after high school as an engine of social and economic mobility.

Watching the coverage of the admissions scandal break beyond education circles and become a mainstream topic of conversation, I can’t help but wonder why the broader conversation doesn’t include examples of great work being done in the field to remedy the inequities in higher education, which make a high-income student five times as likely to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24 as a low-income student.

That’s why I was excited to learn about a newly published book, The B.A. Breakthrough by Richard Whitmire, which highlights examples of approaches being used by charter networks and traditional school districts to get more low-income and first-generation students to and through college. Whitmire’s premise is that if we can isolate best practices from the field — which he presents through compelling stories and profiles — we could very well be on the verge of a, well, breakthrough in expanding opportunity for students across the country.

At the Gates Foundation, we think of college as not just four-year degrees, but also inclusive of associate’s degrees and other certifications. But regardless of how one defines college, we’ve learned a lot from partners and grantees — including some mentioned in Whitmire’s book — about the common themes that illustrate how schools and districts can effectively get more low-income and first-generation students on a path to success in their education after high school. Here are three themes that we believe warrant more conversation and attention:

1. Student success is a journey, not a single outcome. The path to success in college starts well before college — even before high school. The evidence is clear that there are critical moments in a student’s education journey, from pre-K through postsecondary education and into the workforce, where they are either on a path to opportunity or at risk of falling through the cracks. These moments — among them, third-grade reading proficiency, the transition from middle school to high school, on-time high school graduation and first-term credit completion in college — can be used as critical leverage points and can help forecast whether a student is likely to succeed.

The B.A. Breakthrough highlights examples of networks of schools looking at their data to see how students perform over time, rather than just singular moments like high school graduation or college enrollment as the sole metrics for success. For example, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) tracks student progress from eighth grade through college completion, so there is a clear understanding of the students who complete high school, those who drop out (they look to understand both the when and the why) and the students who attend and graduate from college. This kind of view, which communities are also embracing, recognizes that students don’t experience education as a linear path, and schools can be more effective — particularly on behalf of low-income students and students of color — when they focus on ensuring that students stay on track during those critical milestones.

2. Data can define the problem and drive improvement. One of the dynamics that too often takes low-income students and students of color off track is undermatching, wherein students opt not to enroll at higher-performing colleges that they are qualified to attend. This is important because it steers low-income students and students of color away from schools that are often better equipped to support them in ways that make it more likely they’ll earn a degree.

In looking at its data, Fresno Unified School District saw that many students were eligible to apply to a variety of California colleges and universities — and could even receive application fee waivers — but most applied to just one school. To address the problem, the district created personalized “I Am Ready” packets for seniors to let them know which colleges were likely to accept students with their academic profile. Counselors also documented whether students were setting up appointments and applying to college, and why they weren’t applying to specific campuses.

At the end of the year, the Equity and Access team at Fresno studied how each tactic worked and made adjustments based on what they learned. This continuous improvement process led to the number of students applying to colleges outside of Fresno, including many that have a stronger track record of student success, increasing by 50 percent. They’ve also applied this approach in other areas, and it has contributed to an increase in graduation rates by roughly 10 percentage points in five years.

3. Student supports are crucial at key transition points. Completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key predictor of college enrollment and continued persistence. But low-income students are less likely to complete the steps necessary to apply for financial aid, especially if they are the first in their family to apply to college. That’s why strong advising and other supports are needed to make sure that students don’t experience the financial aid process as an insurmountable barrier.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School in Lynwood, California, just south of downtown Los Angeles. Nearly 9 out of 10 students at Firebaugh come from low-income backgrounds, and college is a major vehicle for social and economic mobility for both the students and the broader community. To increase the number of seniors filling out the FAFSA and Dream Act forms, Firebaugh invested in strengthening college and career advising programs, including hosting FAFSA Nights for both students and parents.

The team also leveraged a program through the district that allowed them to hire Firebaugh alumni currently enrolled in college to serve as student tutors. Not only did they help their “near-peers” academically and by demystifying the FAFSA process, they also sent a message to Firebaugh students that college is for them. Having a sense of belonging is such a critical factor in helping low-income students make their way to and through college.

Together with other efforts, 80 percent of Firebaugh’s class of 2019 completed FAFSA and Dream Act applications this year, a 10 percent increase over the class of 2018 and 20 percent more than the class of 2017.

We still have much to learn about the most effective approaches to ensure educational success beyond high school for more low-income students. We are working with partners like the National College Access Network and many others to better understand the conditions and capabilities needed for schools and districts to adopt more “to and through” approaches to advising high school students.

While it’s critically important for us all to reflect on the ways our country’s education system can be more fair, more equitable and more effective, there are examples across the country of schools and systems helping disadvantaged students access opportunity. I hope we spend as much time talking about those as we do talking about scandals. We owe it to ourselves and to our students.

Allan Golston is president of the U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to The 74.

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