Ending the Education Drought in California

May 25, 2015

2015-05-27-1432740952-9045817-graduation-thumbBy John E. Kobara

‘Tis the season when tassels are turned, mortarboards fly and newly minted graduates receive their hard-earned diplomas. About 3.7 million students will graduate with college degrees in this country. More people are engaged in higher education than ever before. The educational pipeline is brimming with students who seek to learn more and pursue their dreams.

It’s a good story, but not the whole story.

A majority of students will end up with debt instead of degrees. In many cases, they will be worse off than when they started, financially and educationally.

In California, we’re talking a lot about the water drought. But we have another kind of drought that’s been plaguing our state. Our “educational aqueduct” is also running on empty and is an inadequate resource.

We are enduring the consequences of a graduation drought. An enormous river of incredible, diverse talent enters one end of the pipeline and barely a trickle emerges from the other end. And if you factor in income, race and ethnicity, we are talking virtually undetectable drips.

This is not a blamethrower piece on teachers, unions, state funding, parenting or even higher education. Everyone is a culprit because we allowed our system to get to this point. All of us have a real stake in this pipeline and yet we are asleep at the valve.

We simply don’t graduate enough talent. And even for those who do get a degree, many of them are burdened by debt that will crush their ability to fully participate in the economy, buy a house, have a family and ultimately become greater tax-paying contributors to society. When student debt surpassed credit debt in this country, we hardly noticed.

You may be one of those people who says college is not for everyone and we don’t need so many college graduates. You are denying the facts. A college degree generates more income in a lifetime. But it also generates more than that: a healthier life style, better parents, greater civic engagement, the list goes on. College grads earn a better livelihood and they earn a better life! Not only that, but we need an educated workforce to grow our economy, our competitiveness on the global stage and, dare I say, our democracy.

Most public and many private universities are failing to graduate low-income students. And don’t get me started on our “super elite” colleges that limit federal Pell Grant-eligible students to less than 25 percent of their student bodies.

So what do we do about the graduation crisis?

In Los Angeles, we teamed up with the College Futures Foundation to form the Los Angeles Scholars Investment Fund (LASIF), a consortium of 32 nonprofit organizations focused on graduation rates. We have abandoned the one-time scholarships, helping people get into college and wishing them well. This was like christening a boat without giving it navigation or a map. Low-income students in particular are faced with so many daunting challenges: financial, cultural and of course academic. Giving them just an access-based scholarship without support is more dangerous than doing nothing at all.

LASIF focuses on the things that work to help students — particularly low-income students — graduate. Here is what we’ve learned:

  • First and foremost, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is free and yet applicants are consistently low across the nation, leaving billions of dollars on the table. In California, only 43.5 percent of students completed their FAFSA in the 2014-15 school year. One hundred percent of LASIF scholars are required to apply for aid and take advantage of all financial resources available to them.
  • Find a school that best suits the student. This seems like a no-brainer, but many students are matched with schools that have abysmal graduation rates. They are matched with schools that don’t provide support for students, especially diverse students.
  • Go beyond academics to develop emotional capital. LASIF partner Project GRAD Los Angeles is one organization that advises students one-on-one from the first day of high school all the way through college. Their model combines academic enrichment with counseling to develop social and emotional competencies that help students handle stress, focus their attention, set goals, and make sound decisions.
  • Deploy mentorship from application to graduation. The Fulfillment Fund, another partner, develops deep mentoring relationships and experiential learning opportunities to help students access and complete college.
  • Engage with parents early and often. College success does not start in college, and can often be enhanced with family support. Our partner Bright Prospect engages parents, in addition to students, in college readiness to ensure this mentality is cultivated both at school and at home.

We are measuring and sharing everything we learn. One thing we are finding is the cost of most of these interventions is very low, making them highly efficient. Today, LASIF scholars have an average graduation rate of approximately 82 percent. While we have a lot to learn and ways to go, we’re more emboldened in our efforts to address the graduation crisis here in Los Angeles. We know we are doing something right when national funders like the Kresge Foundation are investing in LASIF.

If we can support the tremendous flow of talent that is coursing through the pipelines of the educational system — and expand those pipelines so that the graduation rates are more equitable and fruitful for our state — then we may be able to end this education drought.

John E. Kobara is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the California Community Foundation

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