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With Success Boston, college completion rises, gaps persist

Jule Pattison-Gordon
With Success Boston, college completion rises, gaps persist
Panelists Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; Tommy Chang, BPS superintendent; J. Keith Motley, chancellor of UMass Boston; Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation; and Rahn Dorsey, city chief of education.

Success Boston, launched in November 2008, was lauded recently by educators as a bold, collaborative approach to the problem of low rates of college completion by Boston Public School students. Students in the program are paired one-on-one with coaches who assist them throughout high school and college with matters ranging from selecting courses and colleges, to navigating financial aid and higher ed bureaucracy, to taking SATs. The effort focuses on students who are low-income, first generation college attendees and of color. Now, with Success Boston’s first cohort having graduated last year and a White House grant currently funding a threefold expansion of the program, members of the education community gathered at The Boston Foundation on Monday to reflect on its effects thus far.

Researchers and education specialists spoke with tempered enthusiasm: The college completion goal for the 2009 cohort was just about reached, and college enrollment rates increased. However, racial and gender gaps persist and researchers cautioned that it remains difficult to determine how much of the noted improvements can be attributed to the program.

Many speakers highlighted the powerful and wide-ranging benefits of college degrees. Among other things, those with degrees have increased likelihood of having health insurance, being employed and voting, according to Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation.

“The return on investment of college completion is huge,” Grogan said. “Earnings, taxes paid, civic engagement … college grads are much healthier and live longer. The correlations with desirable outcomes are enormous.”

Added to that: A recent report from the state department of Higher Education predicts that within ten years, employers in Massachusetts’ demand for those with at least a bachelor’s degree will exceed supply by more than 55,000. Success Boston, he said, is the solution, and will open the doors to these jobs.

“There’s no way to close that gap without getting the kids who are in Success Boston across the finish line,” Grogan said.

Speakers also praised what they said was a rare level of cross-sector collaboration driving Success Boston, which includes participation from BPS, The Boston Foundation, the Boston Private Industry Council, city government, higher education institutions, local nonprofits and local employers. Such collaboration makes Boston stand out against similar coaching programs across the nation, said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.

“The true cross-sector partnership between city, state, nonprofit, business and K-12 sectors — that is truly is unique to Boston,” Eddinger said.

Alarms raised in 2008

Then-Mayor Thomas Menino launched Success Boston after a 2008 study from Northeastern University revealed that only about one-third of BPS grads attained a college degree within six years of their high school graduation date, according to Grogan. This 2008 study and the follow-up solely examined district schools.

“A group of us led by Mayor Menino gathered, agreed the result was unacceptable and vowed to do something about it,” Grogan said.

To raise these rates, collaborators aimed to increase the number of students entering, remaining in, graduating from and transitioning into the workforce after college

In particular, the Success Boston program set out to tackle knowledge barriers that facing young people who may not know college graduates from whom they can get advice. Coaches give guidance on matters such as the ins and outs of applications and financial aid, the adjustment to more fluid schedules of higher ed institutions and concerns over fitting in with campus culture.

Measuring success

Some signs of progress have emerged. For its first cohort, Success Boston provided transitional coaching to approximately 7 percent of BPS’s class of 2009, or nearly 300 students. Mayor Menino’s goal for 2015 was to have 52 percent of all 2009 graduating BPS students who enrolled in college during the following year to complete their academic work within six years. The results were close to the mark: 51.3 percent did so.

This was a notable improvement over conditions reported in the 2008 study, which found that among those who graduated from BPS in 2000 and entered in college within a year, only 35 percent attained their degree within seven years.

According to Joe McLaughlin, Research and Evaluation director of the Boston Private Industry Council, students who participated in Success Boston were more likely to enroll in college within 16 months of high school graduation and were more likely to enroll promptly — in the fall after high school.

Another finding: students who participated in Success Boston were highly likely to attend one of seven specific institutions. More than 80 percent of these students enrolled in Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, Bridgewater State Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Northeastern University, Roxbury Community College, University of Massachusetts Boston and Suffolk University, compared to 40 percent of non-coached students, according to Tamara Linkow, senior associate at Abt Associates.

Among Success Boston students registered in one of these institutions by July 2010, 49.3 percent graduated within six years, compared to 38.5 percent of non-Success Boston students.

“This could mean that coaching is having a really positive impact on graduation rates for students at these colleges,” Linkow said. She cautioned that it is too early to say if the coaching caused the increase in college completion rates, noting that other factors could influence both participation in coaching and academic outcomes.

Manny Monteiro, a UMass Boston graduate who mentors students, spoke on the power of coaching.

Racial progress and gaps

Success Boston seemed to make strides in increasing postsecondary completion among students from most racial and gender demographics. Six-year completion rates for 2009 BPS grads were higher than those of 2005 BPS grads for male and female Asian, Latino and black students and female white students. White males experienced a slight decline, but Linkow cautioned that so few participated in Success Boston that this may not be a strong indicator of effect.

Black male students are a particular focus of the program.

At the primary seven postsecondary institutions attended by Success Boston students, black men who participated in the coaching program were more likely to attain degrees than those who did not. The completion rate for those in Success Boston was 53.8 percent, compared to 24 percent for counterparts not in the program, according to the report prepared by Abt Associates and the Boston Private Industry Council. In general, for BPS’s class of 2009, over half of coached black male students completed at any college within six years, compared to one-third of non-coached black male students, according to the report.

But despite gains in most demographics, gaps between races and genders persisted. Asian students were still the most likely to get their degrees, followed by whites, Latinos, then blacks. Women were more likely to complete college than men.

Panelists said much more needs to be done.

“We’re talking about low rates of completion [for black males] even for those who were coached,” said Rahn Dorsey, Boston chief of education.

BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang called attention to the persistent low rates of enrollment and completion by Latino men as a major concern for Boston.

“I want to call out the … the Latino male disparity,” he said. “A smaller percentage are enrolling, a smaller percentage are completing and there is a smaller effect of coaching. That community is 40 percent of Boston Public Schools. At this time, it is our largest subgroup of students and they are the ones that are doing the worst.”

Impact of Coaching

The full impact of coaching — and its most powerful features — are not as clear as educators would like, and many panelists called for greater study.

Still, panelists said they had some sense of what may be working. Grogan said providing students with a ready resource for advice and support goes a long way, and Eddinger highlighted the value of making coaching a resource that continues from high school into higher education.

J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, said part of what allows Success Boston coaching to reach students is its presentation as a path to opportunity and career, not as something that reflects a lack in the student’s ability.

“We’re changing from coaching being something that says you’re less than, or you’re in a program that means you’re less than,” Motley said. “This is why we talk about this as ‘Success Boston,’ not something less than that. We talk about the excellence of opportunity.”

Also critical, he said, is making the coaches a caring force in students’ lives, so that the program feels supportive, not punitive or disciplinary.

“Someone paying attention and caring enough about you to say something about success, not constantly chasing you, reframes it,” he said. “Now you don’t want that person to be disappointed in you.”

Linkow said that among the next steps is deeper analysis to get to the heart of what coaching traits have the greatest impact. She said she expects this information to be released in 2017. The Boston Foundation’s Grogan expressed support for expanding coaching options to all students.

While many questions remain, several panelists said the broad collaboration and commitment across organizations to tackle educational needs was an important element to celebrate.

“This is a day to celebrate and also a day to realize that Boston has a lot of work do,” Dorsey said.