3 Ways We’re Improving College Graduation Rates in Philadelphia

Sarah Gomez

By Sarah Gomez, Managing Director of KIPP Through College Philadelphia 

This post was originally published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, as part of their White House College Opportunity Day of Action Web Forum.

As the Managing Director of KIPP Through College at KIPP Philadelphia Schools, my job is to make sure first-generation and low-income students get both to and through college.

We have our work cut out for us here in Philadelphia – just 10 percent of students in our city finish college. But we remain optimistic. KIPP Philadelphia opened our first middle school in 2003, and we project that nearly 40 percent of our founding fifth grade class will graduate from college—higher than even the national rate for all Americans (29 percent).

While this is promising, it’s not enough. We want to fully meet the college completion challenge Michelle Obama laid out for us. One of our key focus areas is college match.

Students who enroll at institutions with high graduation rates are themselves more likely to graduate. However, research shows that students from underrepresented backgrounds—like our KIPP students—often undermatch when they apply to college. In other words, they choose less-selective schools with lower graduation rates, even when they could get into more-selective institutions.

To address this, KIPP has created a College Match initiative. This encompasses KIPP Philadelphia, as well as the national KIPP network of public charter schools, which includes 183 schools in 20 states educating nearly 70,000 students. Our goal is to empower and support students to choose the right college for their situation, where they have the best chance of graduating.

Here in Philadelphia, there are three ways we’re doing this:

First, we start the college conversation early by meeting with all students and families at the beginning of junior year. We introduce them to our college match resources, including a computer tool that lets students input their academic numbers and see which schools qualify as “Reach,” “Target,” or “Likely.”

Second, we train everyone—teachers, principals, support staff—on the nuts and bolts of college counseling. It’s crucial that our students hear the same advice from every single adult at school. We make it clear that 100 percent college acceptances aren’t our goal; instead, we want students stretching themselves in ways they haven’t in the past.

Third, we partner with institutions of higher learning to support students on campus. Nationally, KIPP has partnered with more than 70 colleges and universities, from large public research universities to small private liberal arts colleges. KIPP has partnerships with Philadelphia-area schools including the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin & Marshall College, Lycoming College, Temple University, Kutztown University, Bloomsburg University, Rosemont College, and Rutgers University-Camden.

We can see our students are already benefiting. For instance, one rising senior has aspirations to attend college in North Carolina next fall, close to his family. At the start of junior year, he identified several schools with high graduation rates, but when he entered his GPA into our match tool, he discovered it was too low for these schools to even show up as reaches on his college match list. He knew he had to up his academic game, and he did! Within one year, he raised his GPA enough that he is now in the running for his North Carolina dream schools.

There is much work still to do if we’re going to meet our aspirational White House goal. But the steps KIPP Philadelphia and the KIPP network have taken so far are paying off for our students.

To learn more about how KIPP supports students to and through college, click here >

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