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OPINION: Three ways to help more underrepresented students graduate from college

A trio of solutions that work together as one

When school is too easy: How high schools are failing their students

Boosting education equity should be the starting point for a solution aimed at narrowing the nation’s widening — and alarming — gaps in income, wealth and education.

That solution, though, has proven elusive, with the college success rate for many groups of low-income minority students remaining roughly flat, leaving students from low-income families no more likely to earn degrees than mediocre-scoring students from well-off families.

Now, however, there’s evidence that we know how to start fixing this. And it’s likely that the fix can be ramped up quickly. The recent embarrassing scandal over rich folks allegedly rigging the admissions system for their children’s benefit offers a tailwind for efforts to boost education equity.

Related: 10 years later, goal of getting more Americans to and through college is way behind schedule

The overall solution is actually three solutions. Think of them as separate streams that, if they reach confluence, could form a river of positive change.

First, some high schools around the country, many of them high-performing charters that serve urban neighborhoods, have figured out ways to turn their alumni into successful degree-earners. Some charter networks boast college success rates four times beyond what would be expected, taking into account the students they serve.

In Newark, New Jersey, for example, alumni from Uncommon Schools, which enrolls poor, minority students, are on track to graduate with bachelor’s degrees at rates better than students from affluent families.

And Uncommon is not alone. In the high-poverty Rio Grande Valley in Texas, you can find hundreds of alumni of IDEA Public Schools at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) — students who perhaps never imagined themselves as college graduates. Juan Reyes, for example, grew up in a family that struggled with finances. On top of that, Reyes struggled with school — until his mother insisted he enroll at a nearby IDEA charter.

“At my neighborhood schools, the teachers didn’t care if you did the work. At IDEA, the teachers care. If you don’t do the work, it’s like you are hurting them,” Reyes said. The “you-will-graduate-from-college” attitude at IDEA paid off for Reyes, who will earn his bachelor’s degree from UTRGV in December and who plans to get a master’s degree in accounting.

Second, advocacy groups have gotten really smart about leveraging their interventions to improve graduation rates. Organizations such as College Advising Corps offer smart college counseling that uses data to send high school graduates to colleges that will help them earn degrees — and avoid the colleges that are likely to fail them.

Related: Billions in federal financial aid is going to students who aren’t graduating

Third and finally, growing numbers of colleges and universities are trying a lot harder to ensure that first-generation students who enroll actually walk away with degrees. One simple but effective strategy: boost the number of high-performing transfer students from community colleges, which are home to many students from low-income families.

For example, in northern Virginia, there is close collaboration between Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and nearby George Mason University. Thousands of NOVA students can get tracked quickly into George Mason and stay on track to earn bachelor’s degrees in four years.

Add up those three threads and we’re looking at the possibility of a breakthrough, which is badly needed. Gaps in income, wealth and education threaten who we are as a nation.

Fortunately, there are reasons to be optimistic that the breakthrough can pick up speed. For the most part, these three phenomena are playing out independently. Most universities, for example, know little about what the top charter networks have pioneered. Imagine the possibilities if they all started working together?

Could this actually happen? Most definitely. Two legs of this breakthrough — more smart college counseling for high schoolers who lack it, and greater numbers of first-generation students accepted by top colleges — are already unfolding.

The American Talent Initiative — which has a goal of enrolling, by the year 2025, an additional 50,000 lower-income students at the 318 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students within six years — is only a few years old and already reporting success in boosting the number of students receiving Pell grants at these colleges.

Charter schools provide a more controversial thread. The pro-charter years of the Obama administration — in which Republicans and Democrats worked together to provide school choice for parents unable to exercise the more traditional methods of school choice like moving to a suburban district with high-rated schools or switching to private school — are over. In states such as California and New York, where progressives are at the political helm, charter growth is likely to flatten.

But when it comes to college success, that matters little. Charters were never likely to expand enough to make a real dent in college graduation rates — their numbers are simply too small. What matters are the strategies they pioneered around college success, and whether the far larger traditional school districts are likely to embrace those lessons for their students.

New York City, Miami, Newark and San Antonio have signed up for collaborations.

School districts are unlikely to stop resisting charters, but they are likely to slowly embrace these collaborations as a win-win. Working with a charter network to boost college success for their students doesn’t trigger a single enrollment loss; those students have already graduated. And it wins admiration from parents who worry about investing savings into college tuition if, in the end, their children leave with only debt and no diploma.

There’s good education news out there, if you know where to look for it.

This story about boosting the college graduation rates of underrepresented students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Richard Whitmire, a veteran education reporter and a former editorial writer at USA Today, is the author of The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.

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