Collaborating To Boost Graduation Rates

It’s been three years since Christopher Feaster left Michigan State and he now works in a restaurant at a high-end resort called National Harbor in Maryland.

Christopher last ate around noon and he’s tired, having just finished up a nine-hour shift as a host. He’s trying to get more hours because money is tight.

“I don’t have money to hang out with my friends. I don’t have as much money for transportation, as much money for clothes, as much money for food, as much money for rent, to have money just in case. It’s a very big stressor for me,” he says.

Christopher Feaster would be getting ready to graduate this year if he had stayed in college. Instead, he’s working as a host for McLoone’s Pier House at National Harbor. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

That’s not the only thing upsetting Christopher. Since we last saw each other, he and his mother Nkechi were evicted again. She’s now sharing an apartment with a roommate and Christopher is renting a room in someone’s house for $350 a month. There are three adults and four children sharing one bathroom.

For years, it was thought that just getting students like Christopher into college was enough, but now we know just getting in the door was only the beginning of an uphill climb.

Research shows that minority students are most vulnerable. Nearly 40 percent of white young people in the U.S. have at least a bachelor’s degree. African Americans graduate at about half that rate, Hispanics at a third.

Some schools have bucked that trend. A study by The Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocacy organization, found that Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, was among those that had significantly improved its graduation rates for minority students.

How did they do it?

Attention to student retention pays dividends

A decade ago, VCU realized it had a serious problem: only 40 percent of its students were graduating in six years. So graduation became a priority. Now 60 percent of the students graduate, one of the biggest increases in the country. And the gap between black and white students’ graduating has closed.

It’s a very diverse school. Roughly a third of undergraduates are low-income, a third are the first in their families to go to college, and about half are minorities.

“Imagine taking a third of our students, first-generation students, coming from a less privileged background,” says Luke Schultheis. As the vice provost for strategic enrollment management, he’s in charge of student recruitment, retention and graduation at VCU. “When they get a baccalaureate degree and are able to return to their communities, they are going to be able to bring benefits to their families: improved healthcare, reduced crime, significant increase in lifetime earnings, it just goes on and on.”

Using "Intrusive Advising" To Boost Graduation Rates
Luke Schultheis, vice provost for strategic enrollment management at Virginia Commonwealth University, discusses how data informs the school’s student intervention efforts.

Daphne Rankin is associate vice provost for strategic enrollment management and helps support students so they stay at VCU. She says part of the reason the graduation rate improved is that they changed the freshman experience. Now, students have a core curriculum and are divided into small groups, so they don’t feel alone.

“Classes that would keep the same faculty member, the same 22 students together, for the entire year,” Rankin says. “So in this large urban university of 32,000, we had a place where especially first-year students could go and somebody knew their name.”

Some incoming freshmen who are the first in their families to go to college spend six weeks on campus during summer, so that when the fall semester starts, they are already acclimated.

And Schultheis says VCU also uses data to identify at-risk students who need what’s called “intrusive advising,” where university staff reach out to them individually. That includes students who are in danger of being placed on academic warning, those who have withdrawn from a class because they were failing, those who wait too long to declare a major and those who aren’t taking the credits they need to graduate.

“We’re able to reach out to students before there are negative impacts to help steer them into the right path, so that it’s not too late and they leave the institution,” Schultheis says.

Bridging the high school-college divide

While there’s a need to figure out how to graduate students who get into college, there’s also a need to figure out how to get more students ready for college.

And that’s where Erin Bibo comes in. As the deputy chief, she’s in charge of college and career education for D.C. Public Schools, which is overhauling how it prepares students for college. She is drawing on strategies that several school districts across the country use to varying degrees, including having students visit colleges beginning in middle school and offering college courses in high school.

But Bibo says there’s another critical piece: following their graduates through college.

“When the left hand is talking to the right and students are sort of getting approached by both their college and their high school, it can be a very powerful thing.”

Erin Bibo, deputy chief of college and career education at D.C. Public Schools

“We’re setting up meetings with their leadership and we’re saying, ‘We want to see your data and how our students are doing. Where are they failing?’ And we are going to channel that down to the teacher level at the high schools to say: here’s this disconnect,” Bibo says.

She calls these “bridge conversations” and that’s what’s happening this morning through Skype with VCU. Bibo is in Washington, D.C., with her team. On the other end is the Virginia team, headed by Daphne Rankin, associate vice-provost of strategic enrollment.

They look at historical trends of how many DCPS students attend Virginia Commonwealth and how they fare.

“Our students graduate at very high rates at VCU and we would very much like to have more of our students going to VCU,” Bibo says.

DCPS students also graduate in fewer than six years, and Bibo says that’s especially critical because most of them tend to come from lower-income backgrounds.

“We do have a campaign called the ‘Do the Math’ campaign. And the idea is do the math: 15 credits every semester, you’ll be out in four years. That if you stretch it another year, you’re going to spend about $25,000 for every year that you’re not graduating,” Rankin says.

The concern goes beyond cost. Students who take 15 credits a semester and who graduate in four years tend to get better grades.

Rankin also tells them some that professors at VCU take attendance for freshmen. If a student is marked absent, he gets an automatic email.

“’Hey! I noticed you weren’t in UNIV 111 today. Just want you to know that I missed you,’” Rankin says. “Well by the time he’s missed two or three, those notes get a little more stern: ‘You need to come see me right now. We need to talk about this.’”

Erin Bibo of DCPS conducts a “bridge conversation” over Skype with VCU officials to see how D.C. public school graduates perform at that college. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

They talk about signing a data sharing agreement so they can exchange even more information. Bibo says that, historically, the worlds of K-12 education and college have had little interaction.

“In recent years, I’ve started to see the walls crumbling and that’s a great thing. When the left hand is talking to the right and students are sort of getting approached by both their college and their high school, it can be a very powerful thing,” Bibo says.

They have started to track D.C. Public School students even after graduation.

“I think that as a school district, DCPS children are our children, even after they graduate our schools, they’re still ours. And then when they go to college, they’re still ours. And then when they’re successful in their college and careers, they’re still ours,” she says.

No easy solutions

When his shift ends, Christopher has a 45-minute bus ride back home. It’s 10:15 p.m. and we sprint to make the bus, because if we miss it, it’s a half-hour wait for the next one.

We squeeze into the bus; it’s noisy. Everyone looks beaten down by the day. Christopher updates me on his readmission application to Michigan State.

“I did get readmission,” he says. “If I choose to, I could go back as early as this fall. I doubt I’ll go back or I doubt I’ll go back this soon.”

Compare college graduation rates
An often overlooked metric for deciding on a four-year college or university is graduation rates. The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization, makes that data available online.

I must look crushed because Christopher explains that it’s not that simple. Of course it’s not. This time there won’t be $200,000 in scholarship money.

“I’m going to have to take out loans, so I’m going to have a job. And having all of that while I’m in school, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not for me right now.”

It’s past 11 p.m., and the bus pulls up to Christopher’s stop and he steps off. The street is brightly lit with the signs of fast food restaurants and payday lenders. I can just about make out Christopher getting smaller and smaller as the bus moves on.

Taking the long view

In the U.S., we spend more than ever before on higher education, but the results are spotty. We rank just 19th of 28 developed countries in our college graduation rate.

Every person I spoke to for this story said that the responsibility of getting kids to graduate rests on the college, the high school and student, but only Christopher is paying the price.

All the educators I met seemed committed to helping low-income students, but high schools and colleges can afford to take the long view. Every year, after all, there’s a new crop of students and a fresh chance to make the system work better.

But every day, Christopher bears the consequences of having been underprepared for and overwhelmed by college back when he was just 17 years old.

Christopher still hopes to return to school, but for now it looks like a long way to the college degree of which he still dreams.