Before the coronavirus swept in, Samani Ford had a trusted system for achieving her goals: dream, plan, and execute.
A freshman at Rutgers University-Newark, her dream is to become a genetic counselor and help people navigate the health issues her extended family has faced, including cancer and bipolar disorder. Her plan to accomplish that dream is to excel at Rutgers, then earn a master’s degree and maybe a doctorate.
By the start of her second semester in January, Ford was in full execution mode: She fine-tuned a routine for making the 25-minute drive from her mother’s home in Irvington to campus, attending class and completing her assignments there, then returning home to eat and sleep.
But on March 10, the coronavirus forced Rutgers to cancel classes at its three campuses and send its 70,000 students home early for spring break. A week later, the university closed campuses for the rest of the school year.
The changes turned Ford’s life upside down. Now she was stuck in the basement of her crowded house trying to follow choppy video lectures. She found a job at a local grocery store, where she wore a mask and gloves hoping she wouldn’t carry the virus home. She communicated with friends and professors only through devices. Suddenly, she questioned whether she could maintain her hard-won momentum towards a degree — and her dreams.
“I was in a good position before the coronavirus happened,” she said. Then the pandemic scattered the pages of her college playbook, leaving her plans in disarray. “I kind of left everything in the wind.”
Freshmen are especially vulnerable
College freshmen such as Ford are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus’ disruptions. Even in normal times, the first year is a roller coaster when recent high schoolers must quickly forge a sense of belonging and self-confidence on campus in order to thrive, said Vincent Tinto, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University. “It lays the groundwork for subsequent success,” he said.
When freshmen stumble, the results can be disastrous. Nationwide, more than a quarter of first-year college students — and a third of black students — don’t return for their second year.
Even if students do persist past the first year, their odds of graduating remain alarmingly low. Nearly 40% of students at four-year colleges and universities fail to graduate within six years, leaving many saddled with debt and shut out of lucrative careers. Low-income students, including many in Newark, face the greatest risk of being dragged down — by financial hardships, family obligations, or K-12 schooling that did not prepare them. Students from families in the bottom income quartile are less than half as likely as students in the top quartile to obtain bachelor’s degrees within six years.
Those dismal college completion rates have put pressure on high schools to better equip students for college, and on higher-education institutions to guide their students to degrees. A small number of organizations have tried to attack the problem from both ends. One of them is KIPP, the national charter school network where Ford attended middle and high school. It has developed an elaborate system called “KIPP Through College” designed to steer students onto campuses, then shepherd them across the graduation finish line.
The system is expensive and labor-intensive, and even with it many KIPP alumni leave college without degrees. Still, the approach is catching on with some districts, including Newark Public Schools. The district has sent some of its counselors to study KIPP’s college-advising methods, and the superintendent has promised to pair each student with a mentor who will stick with them through college.
If there was ever a moment when striving college students like Ford most needed the extra support — and when support systems like KIPP’s faced the ultimate test — it is now, as the coronavirus unleashes an avalanche of new obstacles on their path to a degree.
“I don’t like when things change,” Ford said this month. “And everything has changed so fast.”
Finding the right match
Samani Ford attended KIPP Rise Academy in Newark’s West Ward, where a beloved fifth-grade math teacher was forever intoning, Carpe diem, carpe diem. It wasn’t until Ford was in high school, at KIPP’s Newark Collegiate Academy, that she learned the meaning of that Latin aphorism: “Seize the day.”
“It always sat with me,” she said. “Like, do not take anything for granted.” She had the phrase tattooed above her heart.
Ford lived by those words. She founded and captained a high school dance team, the Pouncing Panthers, and worked after school at a children’s party venue, Pump It Up, using her earnings to help pay for her car and prom expenses. And she studied endlessly, pursuing her game plan to attend a college where she could conduct research on her path to becoming a genetic counselor.
When Ford needed to recharge, she would visit the office of Natasha Stone, the college placement counselor. A Newark native, Stone related to Ford’s relentless drive, but also recognized the anxiety that sometimes gripped Ford as she juggled work and dance, family drama and AP classes.
So when Ford stopped by, Stone would sometimes dim her office lights, ask Ford to breathe deeply, and remind her: “While life is throwing you a lot of curve balls you didn’t expect, you’re still crushing it.” Only then would they resume their search for Ford’s ideal “college match.”
Since launching inside a Houston middle school in 1994, KIPP has grown into the nation’s largest nonprofit charter school network, with more than 100,000 students ranging from preschool to 12th grade. Throughout, an overriding mission has fueled the schools: “to help students climb the mountain to and through college,” as CEO Richard Barth put it last year. And, indeed, researchers have found that KIPP students — 95% of whom are black or Hispanic — are far more likely than their peers to enroll in college.
Yet, compared with its success propelling students to college, KIPP has had more trouble getting them to graduate. While 80% of KIPP alumni have enrolled in college, only 40% have earned degrees, according to KIPP’s internal data, which is cumulative through 2018 and includes KIPP high school graduates as well as middle school graduates who attended non-KIPP high schools. In Newark, only a third of KIPP high school graduates who headed to college in 2011 had earned bachelor’s degrees six years later, according to an analysis by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative at Rutgers-Newark.
In one sense, this is a victory. KIPP alumni are significantly more likely than the average black or Hispanic adult to attain degrees. And in Newark, KIPP’s college-bound graduates are about twice as likely to earn degrees in six years as their peers in Newark’s non-selective public high schools. (The district enrolls larger shares of English learners and students with disabilities than KIPP.) But the gulf between college enrollment and completion still means that KIPP is falling short of its promise to thousands of students — and the students are falling short of their dreams.
Importance of college application
A key way that KIPP has responded to that challenge is by refining its college-advising process. Counselors try to steer high schoolers to institutions where they have the greatest odds of success based on the institutions’ graduation rates and financial aid offerings and that also appeal to students’ preferences. “How you go about the college application process can be worth 5 to 10 points in college graduation rates,” Barth told Education Post.
One morning in her office at KIPP’s Newark high school, Stone pulled up a student’s file to illustrate the process in action.
The student was a senior with a 3.1 GPA and a score of 20 on the ACT, landing her near the middle of the pack among test-takers. With Stone’s help, she had compiled a “wish list” of colleges, then used KIPP’s college-match software to review each institution’s graduation rate for black and Hispanic students, the average amount that KIPP alumni at each school still owed after receiving financial aid, and the student’s odds of admission to each school based on her grades and test scores.
KIPP requires its students to apply to at least nine institutions, including a few competitive “reach” schools. The aim is to avoid “undermatching,” where high-achieving low-income students choose less-selective colleges that are often less likely to get students to graduate. This senior submitted 16 applications, including to less competitive institutions such as Centenary University but also more selective ones such as Spelman College. Once the acceptance and award letters began to arrive, she and Stone calculated how much loan debt each college would leave her with.
“Data gives us the information we need to counsel students,” Stone said. “Our students are very informed.”
In recent years, KIPP has been sharing its college-matching strategies with other districts. It started with the San Antonio Independent School District in 2015, and in 2018 KIPP announced four other partners: the Newark, New York City, and Miami-Dade County school districts and the Aspire charter school network. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which contributes funding to Chalkbeat, provided a grant for the program.
KIPP staffers began visiting the three participating Newark high schools — American History, Central, and University — during the 2018-2019 school year. Last summer, Superintendent Roger León and several Newark counselors traveled to Houston to take part in training workshops during KIPP’s annual summit.
Kaycee Brock, the KIPP Through College program director who oversees the partnerships, said this school year’s goal is for the counselors to push students to apply to more colleges, including more selective institutions in order to prevent undermatching.
While the district school counselors may be able to borrow some KIPP advising strategies, they must do so with fewer resources than KIPP, whose KIPP Through College program had a $3.8 million budget in the 2018 fiscal year and where the average student-counselor ratio is 100 to 1, far lower than most districts. District-charter partnerships can also present political challenges in cities such as Newark, where the charter sector’s rapid expansion — and recent district efforts to rein it in — have bred distrust.
The Newark school district declined to make León or any counselors available for an interview. But Brock said the program has so far avoided any rivalry or controversy.
“I love that this is not making people choose sides,” she said in an interview last year. “It’s just having people work together and see the value in each other.”
By last spring, Ford had been admitted to 10 of the 11 institutions where she applied, including the University of Delaware and the elite Amherst College. But at her mother’s urging, she chose a school closer to home that would leave her with less debt: Rutgers-Newark.
That June, KIPP’s Newark Collegiate Academy celebrated the Class of 2019’s college choices during its annual “Senior Signing Day” celebration. One after another, the departing seniors took to the stage in a college auditorium to announce the institutions where they were headed: Rutgers, Montclair State, Duke, Notre Dame. As the graduates shouted out their destinations, the junior class roared like fervent fans at a concert.