It is hard to recall a time in my life filled with more cynicism than the one we are in today. If you want to believe that as a country, we can’t do better, stop reading now. Because I want to tell you a pretty cool story that reminds us that individuals and institutions can do good.
I’m the CEO of KIPP Schools. Today, KIPP has 242 schools and every day, over 100,000 students walk through our doors. Just under 90% of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. More than 15,000 KIPP alumni are currently in college, and KIPP alumni graduate from college at higher rates than the United States general population.
We’ve also come to see that getting to college is not the same as getting through college. So, over the past decade, we have developed over 90 college partners working to create a stronger pathway to completion for first-generation college-goers. Today, a third of KIPP high school seniors will enroll at one of these partners. We are still in the early days of this work, but some great examples of what can be different are already emerging.
Here’s one story of a private liberal arts college that’s worth sharing. Lycoming College is a small, liberal arts college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The institution’s origins date back to 1812, and it began awarding B.A. and B.S degrees in the middle of the twentieth century. Lycoming has educated young people with limited financial resources for years. Historically, about 30% of Lycoming’s students have been Pell Grant eligible. Most of those students were from small towns in Pennsylvania and New York State. It has a history as an engine of social mobility.
Selected by the Lycoming College board in 2012 as its next president, Kent Trachte, Ph.D., arrived at Lycoming from Franklin and Marshall. Kent and the board recognized that Lycoming could build on its legacy of working with first-generation college students and adapt that strength to a changing world. In 2013, KIPP entered into a partnership with Lycoming College and since then 173 KIPP alumni have enrolled at Lycoming. This year alone, 117 KIPP students are attending Lycoming. Today, 45% of Lycoming’s students are Pell Eligible, with the majority of those students coming from urban areas. In 2013, Lycoming’s freshman class included 13% of students of color from the United States, while today that number is at about 35%. Most importantly, 75% of KIPP alums who have enrolled are either persisting or have graduated. Students of color are graduating at the same rate as white students at Lycoming. Moreover, Lycoming’s graduation rate of students from low-income families stands just shy of 70%.
I visited Lycoming to try to understand how this has unfolded. Here’s the bottom line: it requires commitment and work on everyone’s part. The college has created a transition program for KIPP and similar groups of students that employs the proven tools of cohorts, faculty and peer mentors. Lycoming created a retention fund so that students did not have to drop out of college because of unexpected expenses or a family crisis. They have reworked their career advising by embedding the career advisors in clusters of academic departments and created a much better ratio of career advisors to students. Lycoming counselors are accountable for contacting and helping every student under their care to devise a plan during and after college. Financially, Lycoming commits to meeting 100% of KIPP students’ needs, based upon the billable cost and the student’s FAFSA results. They do this through a combination of federal and state grants, Federal Stafford Loans, and significant Lycoming College scholarships and grant funding. This enables KIPP alumni to graduate with no more than $27,640 in cumulative student loan debt from their four-year education at Lycoming.
Additionally, Lycoming has bolstered its financial commitment by providing plenty of opportunities for KIPP alumni to secure work both on and off campus through community work-study positions. This enables students to earn spending money throughout the academic year.
I also had a chance to speak with Ericka Booker, a KIPP alum from NYC and a 2018 graduate of Lycoming. Erica didn’t downplay the challenges of transitioning from a huge city to a small town, or from a high school that was entirely African American and Latinx to a predominately white institution. But Erica loved that Lycoming was a liberal arts institution and that she was able to explore multiple disciplines before deciding to major in Spanish. The size of Lycoming really made a difference for her – she felt that she wasn’t just a number in a classroom, but an individual whose story was of interest to many faculty. With small class sizes, professor-to-student relationships were able to flourish.
It is all too clear that higher education needs to evolve. From where I sit, the most selective colleges in America should aim to (at least) double the number of students of low-income families they enroll. Our state flagship institutions should mirror their state’s demographics (they don’t right now) rather than serving as homes away from home for the children of their more affluent families. Our state systems need more, not less, public support. In the case of Lycoming, we see how private liberal arts colleges can play a real role in providing opportunity and mobility for Americans. It’s all about leadership and a willingness to roll up our sleeves and do the work.
Richard Barth is the CEO of KIPP Foundation.