Local bright spots in college readiness push

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2013 - 3:12 PM

Research finds merit in College Possible, Project SUCCESS

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Cliff Blair/Tallahassee Democrat/MCT ORG XMIT: 1102928

Photo: Cliff Blair • Tallahassee Democrat/MCT,

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Minneapolis is past the unproven theory phase of education reform. A city whose recent election focused on improving school performance and whose retiring mayor will soon spearhead a major effort to close the achievement gap is ready to seize and maximize strategies that have produced proven results.

Encouraging reports have recently surfaced about two such strategies, developed and deployed by two homegrown Twin Cities nonprofit organizations, Project SUCCESS and College Possible. While they differ somewhat in the populations they target and the approaches they use, both attempt to land more low-income Twin Cities students in college and on pathways to productive careers. Both play roles that Minnesotans might expect school guidance counselors to play — if Minnesota had more of them. (See box, right.)

Here are the findings:

• Nine of 10 high school students served by Project SUCCESS, a 20-year-old youth development organization for grades 6-12, reported in 2012 that the program has helped them set goals and create a plan for more study after high school graduation. That was the finding of the University of Minnesota Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement in the most recent of three studies of the project’s effectiveness.

Better still, their teachers concur. Nine of 10 of the teachers surveyed credited the project with boosting student motivation, goal-setting and problem-solving ability. Eight of 10 alumni surveyed said Project SUCCESS made them more self-directed and able to evaluate their progress toward academic and career goals.

One key to the project’s success: The staff members who students meet in 6th grade stay with a majority of those students as they transition into high school. They meet monthly with students in-class and lead a variety of out-of-school experiences, including a Boundary Waters canoe trip after 8th grade and college tours during high school.

Staffing continuity is a particular asset in the city schools Project SUCCESS serves. The project is present in all Minneapolis public high schools, some Minneapolis middle schools and in two St. Paul middle schools, and hopes to reach more.

• College Possible (formerly known as Admission Possible) is producing a 15 percent boost in the share of academically capable low-income students who enroll in four-year colleges. That’s the conclusion of Harvard University researcher Christopher Avery in a control-comparision working paper published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Founded in 2000, College Possible works with juniors and seniors at 20 high schools in the Twin Cities, as well as serving schools in Milwaukee, Omaha and Portland. It targets young people with academic credentials strong enough for college work, but whose family incomes and backgrounds put them at risk for either not enrolling in college or choosing a nonselective two-year college instead of a selective four-year school. It employs AmeriCorps workers to offer college entrance exam tutoring and coaching through the admissions process.

“My research is based on the worry that we’ve set up a system that’s too complicated for even talented students who lack the connections and social networks that help others navigate the process of college admission,” Avery told an editorial writer last week. His research showed that College Possible “helps students who are already succeeding get on a better path. These are students who are pretty good but still need help.”

National statistics bear out the need for what College Possible offers, according to its founder, Jim McCorkell. Students from low-income families are 10 times less likely than those from upper-income families to earn a four-year college degree. College Possible’s intervention improves those odds for low-income young people.

How can Minnesota take wider advantage of the results College Possible and Project SUCCESS are producing? That’s among the questions that Generation Next was created to answer. It’s the coordinating, policy-recommending entity that Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak will head when he leaves City Hall next month. These two Minnesota-based efforts belong on Generation Next’s radar for analysis and replication.

College Possible and Project SUCCESS have been growing slowly on their own. But both are funded through donations, not tax dollars, limiting their growth. Both attribute their good results to the personal attention their staffers give students — an effective but expensive approach. For Generation Next to live up to its potential, it will need to help proven entities like these two organizations live up to theirs.

  • Worrisome ratio

    At 782 students for every public school guidance counselor, Minnesota has the third-highest ratio among the 50 states. So says a 2010-11 report by the American School Counselor Association, which recommends a 250:1 ratio. The U.S. average ratio is 471:1.

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