Its name notwithstanding, the network’s own statistics suggest that few Alliance alumni are actually ready for the realities – academic, social and financial – of college. The vast majority drop out. In all, more than three-fourths of Alliance alumni don’t earn a four-year college degree in the six years after they finish high school.
In many ways, charter schools were designed a quarter-century ago to help close the rich/poor college gap, though it has taken nearly that long, charter officials say, to do so for more than just a few students.
The first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992, and since then the sector has grown steadily. Total enrollment topped 3 million students for the first time last fall, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. More than 6,900 schools now enroll an estimated 3.1 million students, about three times as many as a decade earlier. Last fall alone, the alliance notes, more than 300 charter schools opened. [SEE http://www.publiccharters.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/EER_One-Page_Web.pdf ]
The Trump administration has floated an offer to allow even more families access to charter schools, among other choices such as private-school vouchers and tax credits. In an editorial this month in USA TODAY, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wrote of students stuck in “failing” neighborhood schools: “If they don’t have the means to move to a better school district, then they’re trapped,” she wrote. [SEE http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/03/02/betsy-devos-trump-delivers-education-promises-column/98594982/ ]
Yet even educators in the charter world say that simply handing families more choices is unlikely to improve outcomes.
“It’s a big, hard, thorny problem,” said Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of 20 charter schools in New York, Washington, D.C., Camden, N.J., and Baton Rouge, La. Although its first alumni are not slated to finish college until this spring, the network has pushed hard to make college completion a priority. He estimates that nearly nine in 10 Democracy Prep alumni are on track to earn a four-year degree. [SEE http://democracyprep.org/ ]
Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy program at New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, said many low-income students drop out of college because they’re overwhelmed by high-level academics. Others end up at colleges that are a lousy match. Even students at colleges that suit them may suffer from a lack of guidance or difficulties integrating into social and academic life. In some cases, he said, even successful students’ families simply can’t afford tuition, fees, room and board. [SEE https://www.newamerica.org/our-people/kevin-carey/ ]
“Whatever happens in college that tends to prevent students from graduating, those factors seem to overwhelm whatever preparatory virtues even the best charter schools are able to impart in their students,” Carey said.
Katzir, Alliance’s CEO and a former Broad Foundation managing director, said the poor results should be taken in context, since Alliance’s first job, more than a decade ago, was to raise high school graduation rates.
In 2004, he said, there were 49 high schools in the L.A. school system “The reason why I remember there were 49 high schools is that the district’s average high school graduation rate at the time was 49%,” Katzir recalled.
At the time, he said, charter schools set out to prove “that you could overcome the high school ‘dropout factory’ and you could take these exact same students, provide them with opportunities and access to academic programming that enabled them to complete high school and get into college.” That first decade or so, he said, “we were built to solve a problem in urban communities that no one else had done before, which is actually get poor black and brown scholars through high school. Once we were able to do that, then the question becomes: ‘O.K., well what’s next?'”
He noted that for Alliance alumni who attend a group of 150 universities focused on aiding minority students, the graduation rate is 69%. Alliance came up with the list by ranking 4,200 U.S. schools based on their graduation rates for “underrepresented minorities,” and found that just 150 had a six-year graduation rate of 75% or higher. [SEE http://www.laalliance.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=567768&type=d&pREC_ID=1065361 ]
In many ways, the college-persistence problem is not just a charter school problem, but one that afflicts low-income students more generally. In 2013, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, found that students from the USA’s lowest-income families were about one-eighth as likely as the wealthiest students to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24. For the wealthiest, the rate was 77%. For the poorest? Just 9%.
Democracy Prep schools require college counselors on all campuses to match graduates to appropriate colleges, Duffy said. Once students are in college, a “really aggressive” team of 10 alumni tracks their progress, pulling transcripts and talking to both the student and college administrators about how they’re doing.
At the moment, Duffy said, 87.5% of its first graduates, from the Class of 2013, are still enrolled in college. Of the rest, roughly one in eight, who aren’t in college, the alumni team is working to get those students back on track, either by helping them get jobs to pay for classes or by easing them back into classes through nearby community colleges.
“Some of it’s financial,” she said. “Some of it is life stuff.”
For all of their focus on academic success, most charter schools have only recently begun puzzling over college persistence. As a result, good national data is hard to find – one group of researchers in 2014 quipped that, compared the “voluminous literature” on charters’ achievement gains, research on outcomes such as college graduation “is still sparse.”
Recent findings suggest that attending a charter school will likely push students toward attending a four-year college, but the most comprehensive research so far, from the high school class of 2008, put the six-year college completion rate for charter high school students at just 23% for four-year colleges. Another 5% earned degrees from two-year colleges. Researchers cautioned that the sample size was small, however, and subject to “higher variance and uncertainty” than the much larger group of district high school graduates. [SEE https://nscresearchcenter.org/hsbenchmarks2015/ ]
The chain began focusing less on simply getting students to college and more on skills that would help them get through college, with an eye toward turning out graduates who could be successful after they left the heavily structured KIPP environment. “We weren’t trying to produce kids who were just great eighth-grade test-takers,” Mancini said.
KIPP pushed its high school seniors to apply to more colleges – as recently as 2014, Mancini said, only 12% applied to six or more colleges.
And they trained college counselors to match students more closely with colleges that fit their abilities.
Two years later, in 2011, KIPP looked more broadly at its alumni and found their four-year college completion rate had risen to 33%. Last year, it was 45%, with another 6% holding two-year degrees. In the most recent high school class, 73% applied to six or more colleges.
“We still have room to grow but I think that is incredible,” Mancini said.
Next they plan to take a look at issues that hold students back, such as food insecurity – they’ve already found that about 60% of college-going alumni report having to forego meals to pay for books or other necessities. [SEE http://www.kipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016-KIPP-Alumni-Survey-Overview.pdf ]
Carey, of New America, said one of the biggest problems is that many charter schools are located in economically distressed neighborhoods, so they naturally guide students to nearby colleges. But many of these – often they’re two-year public community colleges – have some of the USA’s lowest graduation rates. The colleges that many charter school students end up in suffer from “many of the same pathologies as public K-12 institutions,” such as a lack of resources and lousy educational models. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have low graduation rates. “Particularly for low-income students, it does matter where you go to college,” Carey said.
So the Trump administration’s plan to provide families with more K-12 choices won’t necessarily solve the graduation problem, he and others said.
Department of Curriculum & Instruction
College of Education and Human Services
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
625 Wham Drive / MC 4610
Carbondale, Illinois 62901