MOBILE, Ala. — Among other things, the boosters who pitched international companies to come and do business in this port city promised that its high quality of education would guarantee a steady supply of skilled employees.
Lots of students appeared to be graduating from area high schools. Not just one but two public community colleges seemed to be feeding into a four-year state university, which was putting up lots of new buildings and staging big annual commencements.
The pitches worked. Among the companies that took Mobile up on its offer were the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the Norwegian engineering company Aker Solutions. The Finnish stainless-steel producer Outokumpu built a state-of-the-art mill.
Then a local education foundation discovered that those high school graduation rates were based on a formula that made them look much higher than they actually were — nearly 20 percentage points below the national average.
That gave rise to a closer look at the community colleges, where things turned out to be equally bad. Nearly half of entering students failed to return for a second year, and one school was graduating only between 11 and 14 percent of them within even three years.
“Hold on. Fourteen percent? How do you all get away with this?” asked Chandra Scott, director of strategic outcomes for the independent nonprofit Mobile Area Education Foundation, who had sat in on some of the rosy presentations held to court new business.
At the university, just 43 percent of students were finishing in six years, the locals realized when they looked more closely.
“We thought things were fine,” Scott said. “We didn’t look at azo until business and industry started saying, ‘This isn’t working for us.’ ”
Mobile did more than just bemoan its grim statistics. A grassroots coalition of business and civic leaders came together with a resolve to fix these problems by alternately helping and compelling educators to greatly improve their results.
Their goal: for 75,000 Mobile residents to earn new degrees by 2030.
“It’s stronger than a suggestion. It’s an expectation,” Carolyn Akers, the education foundation’s CEO, said with a firm gaze and an even tone. “We feel like it’s all of our jobs.”
It’s not only in Mobile where people are discovering that colleges and universities hold onto and graduate fewer of their students than the public seems to think. Nationally, fewer than a third of community college students get degrees within three years and just under 60 percent of students at four-year universities finish within six.
Impatient with these low success rates, a growing number of communities are taking matters into their own hands.
Churches and other organizations in Greensboro, North Carolina, are helping drive young people to enroll in and older adults to return to college by providing not only inspiration but also such practical support as day care and money for books and unanticipated costs.
More than 2,700 volunteers are helping high school students apply to college in Tennessee as part of tnAchieves, and 242 unpaid coaches are doing the same thing through ScholarMatch, a San Francisco-based nonprofit founded by author Dave Eggers.
Begun as a task force set up by the chamber of commerce to figure out why more people didn’t have degrees, the Spartanburg Academic Movement is working to double the proportion of adults in that South Carolina city who do, from less than 20 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2030, by improving the education system as early as kindergarten and encouraging more people to enroll in or go back to college.
“You have to ensure that you’ve got young people securing credentials consistent with the workforce demands that you have,” said Thomas Lasley II, CEO of Learn to Earn Dayton, a coalition of mostly private organizations aimed at raising the proportion of working-age adults with degrees in that Ohio city to 60 percent by 2025 — a big ambition, considering that the local school system ranked last in the state in the 2017-18 academic year based on student test scores.
“It takes a combination of people, intermediaries like ourselves, who can connect the dots between the public schools, the universities, the corporations,” said Lasley. “That’s where I think you really get movement.”
In Mobile, those dots long went unconnected. Few high school students were encouraged to go on to college. Most of those who did dropped out. The transfer route from the community colleges to the public university just made things worse, since credits earned at one were often not accepted by the other.
Under a succession of administrators, these three institutions — the two-year Bishop State and Coastal Alabama community colleges and the four-year University of South Alabama — had been focused more on competing with each other for enrollment than on collaborating, their own leaders say now.
The handful of students who did manage to transfer from a community college to the university ended up with far more credits than they needed, since no one told them which courses would count toward their degrees. They were also relegated to the back of the line when it came to registering for classes they actually did need, meaning they took even longer to finish, wasting time and money.
The community began demanding to know why this performance was so poor.
“The numbers were really low, and people started noticing,” said Carol Statter, workforce development coordinator at the local healthcare provider Infirmary Health.
“A big moment was when all the business and industry came in,” Statter said. “The economic development people had written the check. Now we needed to cash it.”
And not only for the sake of filling jobs. In Mobile, as in Dayton, Spartanburg and other cities, poor results from public schools and colleges were perpetuating economic inequality. Fewer than one in four people in Mobile have bachelor’s degrees, the Census Bureau says. And with a third of students dropping out before even finishing high school, the leaky education pipeline was doing little to reduce the city’s poverty level, which is higher than 20 percent.
That made churches and other advocates join the effort, too.
“The child I see on Sunday morning, we’re supposed to help them do the positive thing, the right thing,” said Charlotte Greene, youth pastor at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mobile’s Down the Bay neighborhood.
“Education helps people grow,” said Greene, who also got involved in efforts to improve things. “They’re not going to grow if they don’t know and cannot go.”
The sudden scrutiny of the university and the colleges happened to coincide with new presidents being named at all three. Prodded by the community, they took a small step with huge symbolic meaning: meeting together once a month.
“That’s the amazing thing now. They will sit in a room and have lunch together,” Scott said. “Why weren’t they doing this before?”
The presidents agreed to make it easier to transfer to South after starting at one of the community colleges. All are now pushing their students to earn 15 credits per semester, the minimum they need to graduate on time. Advisers help plot out pathways to degrees that might begin at one of the schools and finish at another. Transfer students from the community colleges have been moved up in the university’s registration process.
“It’s been really nice to be able to sit down and show your credits to them and they’ll say, ‘Here’s what you should take next,’ ” Sarah De Loach, a student at Bishop, said of the advisers now available to her as she plans her progression toward a bachelor’s degree in education.
Carry Lane, a nursing student at Coastal, plans to eventually transfer to South. “They want us to do well,” Lane said. “If there is a way you can get a degree, they’re going to help you do it.”
Behind the scenes, even these efforts were met with suspicion among the institutions. When he and colleagues visited the community colleges to help students there more smoothly move along to South, said the university’s then-transfer coordinator, Bob Charlebois, “There was a fear that somebody was saying [to the students], ‘Don’t stay here. Come to South.’ ”
He wasn’t imagining it, said Victoria Perry, a counselor at Bishop. “It was like, ‘They’re going to steal our students,’ ” Perry said. “It was all about enrollment. We were competing for students. They were competing for students. Everybody was going for the same pot.”
Once the schools began collaborating, however, she said, “It was like a chain reaction.”
Last year, fewer than 30 students transferred from the community colleges to the university under the new so-called pathways program. This year, more than 100 did, administrators said.
Today the leaders of Bishop, Coastal and South sound like a mutual admiration society.
Before he took the reins at South, “My perception of community colleges was, it’s just a technical school,” acknowledged the university’s president, Tony Waldrop. He said he’s changed that view. By working together, Waldrop said, “We all win.”
Added Coastal President Craig Pouncey: “Higher education was a bunch of stuck-up snobs for the longest time. But with the economy being what it is, with the tax dollars what they are, it’s having to change now.”
And Bishop President Reginald Sykes said, “We all understand that if we’re going to continue to recruit industries to come to Mobile, we all have to work together. K-12 can’t do it alone, the community colleges can’t do it alone, the university can’t do it alone.”
An unusual coalition has come together and joined in to help. Businesses are adding internships and apprenticeships for students at all levels. Airbus employees have volunteered as reading buddies for children in elementary, middle and high schools. Scott hands out T-shirts to parents at high school football games in exchange for phone numbers, then texts them deadlines for filling out the all-important federal form that determines if their children will receive financial aid for college.
An independent education commission has formed, with 30 members that include elected officials and representatives from churches, businesses, schools, colleges, foundations and youth centers.
“We’re like the conductor in the orchestra,” said Akers, who is a member of that group.
“There’s so much more hope now than there was three years ago, four years ago,” said Greene.
Those similar initiatives in other towns and cities also appear to be helping.
The proportion of the population with degrees has increased from 32 percent to 38 percent in Dayton, where the share of high school students going to college is up slightly and the school system is no longer ranked worst in the state. In Spartanburg, high school graduation rates are also on the rise, and the proportion of the population with bachelor’s degrees increased to 24 percent on the way toward that 40 percent goal. Prodded in part by all of those volunteer coaches, the share of high school graduates in Tennessee who are going straight to college rose from under 60 percent to more than 63 percent.
These community crusades are spreading. After having helped improve high school graduation rates, college enrollment and even kindergarten readiness, for instance, a collaborative of local organizations in the Cincinnati area has grown into a national network of nearly 70 like-minded partnerships called StriveTogether.
There are less tangible results, too. One is in the way communities view colleges and universities, which are often literally walled off from their surroundings.
“When I started, some of my experience was, ‘The university hasn’t been my favorite neighbor,’” said Nicole Carr, associate vice president for student academic success at South, speaking about the way community members regarded South. “That’s changing.”
There are new attitudes among the institutions, too.
“We’re no longer considering ourselves in competition with each other,” said Mary Beth Lancaster, dean of instruction at Coastal.
There’s something about Mobile — home of America’s original Mardi Gras, where strangers offer friendly hellos on Dauphin Street — that has made this process smoother than it might be in other cities, locals say.
“Mobile is the biggest small town you’ve ever been to,” said Statter.
“It makes it easier for people to come together and say, ‘We’re willing to try this,’ ” Akers said.
But there’s also some frustration that it took a village to achieve something educators could have done themselves.
“Why do we have to put you in these types of moments,” Scott said she sometimes feels like asking, “when you should have fixed this on your own?”
This story about community college to university was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.