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New College Completion Initiative Targets College Success of KIPP Charter School Alumni

Faced with troubling statistics about the college completion rates of its graduates, a network of college-preparatory public charter schools is helping to launch the Partnership for College Completion (PCC), an ambitious college-completion initiative that combines matched savings accounts, college-readiness and financial literacy workshops, as well as academic scholarships.

PCC, the new organization, is a collaborative partnership among the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and the Center for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit aimed at expanding economic opportunity among underserved communities.

A recent KIPP study found that though most of its graduates eventually attend either two- or four-year colleges, few graduate. Among one cohort of eighth graders who graduated from a KIPP middle school, only 33 percent finished college within eight years. This is a considerable improvement from the estimated 8.3 percent of Black and Latino students who complete college. But it falls short of KIPP’s goal to shepherd at least 75 percent of its graduates through college.

Research has found that students drop out for myriad reasons, whether it is because of lack of financial support, isolation or personal obligations.

“One of the reasons we find that students pull out is lack of financial means. The lack of connections. This perceived level of institutional support,” says Karl Reid, senior vice president of Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives at UNCF.

“The purpose of the college partnership is to facilitate a level of integration so that when a KIPP student walks on campus, he is already plugged into a network of support,” he says.

KIPP, working in tandem with two educational non-profits, plans to aggressively target what Reid describes as “non-academic” barriers to success.

“To our knowledge, there are no programs like this that are as comprehensive,” says Reid.

PCC will involve KIPP students from sixth through 12th grades. It’s currently entering a two-year pilot period involving KIPP schools in major metropolitan areas—New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Houston. The program will be funded by a Citi Grant during the first two years and is voluntary. By 2012, more than 6,000 students from 28 KIPP schools are expected to have access to the program. (There are about 27,000 KIPP students nationwide.)

After the program’s initial embryonic stage, PCC will be supported by joint fundraising efforts from the three participating organizations. The outcomes of PCC’s “pilot period” will be closely monitored as well. Brandeis University is expected to conduct research on the program’s effectiveness.

Students participating in the voluntary program attend “6to16,” a college-readiness and financial literacy curriculum that’s being developed by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute.

Separately, UNCF will provide one-fifth of participating students with renewable scholarships of up to $25,000. But to many, the crowning achievement of the program is the creation of matched savings accounts, provided by Citi Microfinance and Citibank.

Students begin with $100 worth of seed money in their accounts. Every dollar they contribute is matched, up to $250 dollars per year.

Reid says that compared to the skyrocketing costs of tuition, the amount of matched funds and scholarships that students receive may not be enough to make ends meet. But since the students receiving these scholarships are already high-achievers, PCC expects them to receive additional scholarships and aid during college.

UNCF administrates each savings account, but each organization brings its own experience and vision to the project.

In a telephone interview, KIPP director of public affairs Steve Mancini explained how KIPP’s ethos informs the work PCC intends to accomplish.

“We believe kids can and will learn,” he says.

At least 95 percent of students in the 109 KIPP schools nationwide are African-American or Latino, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college, he says.

In KIPP schools, a typical school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Home rooms are named after their teachers’ alma maters. In these schools, children are encouraged to think of college as the inevitable culmination of years of hard work and determination.

Yet Mancini acknowledges that for many first-generation college students, the financial barriers to completing college can seem insurmountable.

“We realize that if you’re going to take first generation families and get them through college, there’s a lot of hurdles,” he says. “Financial hurdles are a tough nut to crack.”

CFED will work to develop PCC’s core policy agenda and also will play an advisory role, reviewing the “6to16” curriculum and making recommendations drawn from 30 years of experience.

“Part of the way we’ve operated is to both understand how good ideas work on the ground, test them out, and use the lessons from those ideas to inform public policy,” says CFED’s Vice President of Programs Carl Rist.

For example, the idea of creating student savings accounts has its root in what Rist calls a five-year long “demonstration” involving thousands of families nationwide. The CFED program, called Saving for Education, Entrepreneurship, and Downpayment (SEED), lasted from 2003 to 2008 and attempted to answer one hypothetical question: What if every child in America had a matched savings account?

SEED, funded by the Ford Foundation, had encouraging results.

“What it did show is that families, even of low-income, would contribute to these savings accounts, and that the savings had a significant impact on children and families in terms of their hopes and dreams for the future,” he says.

This model of success, combined with research showing similar outcomes—that children with savings accounts were more likely to thrive and stay in college—provided a strong incentive for the creation of savings accounts.

“[We] bring the experience to show that the savings strategy can work,” says Rist.

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