Improving the college pipeline for at-risk youth

Working with high-schoolers isn't enough. Colleges must reach out to third graders to make a difference.

Now I know how Don Quixote felt when he jousted with windmills. As I read about the efforts of Bill Gates to reform American high schools, I want to scream "No!"

While his efforts will do some good, I wish that he, and others who are following his lead, would realize that investing in children must happen much earlier than high school – third grade would be ideal – to really make a difference.

I was a college president for 24 years. During most of those years, I – and many of my presidential colleagues – worked with high schools. Why? Because in an effort to make our campuses more diverse, we thought that by reaching out to ninth-graders we would be able to prepare them for the rigors of college and, in the process, broaden the pipeline to college for at-risk students.

I was wrong. I failed, and I know that most of my colleagues did, too. At Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where I was president from 1990 to 2005, we increased the population of at-risk students by 30 percent – not nearly good enough for a 15-year stretch.

The failing grade is not the result of lack of effort but the product of too little, far too late. Despite our collective desire to make our campuses more diverse, we are falling short because the pipeline is too narrow and the pool of qualified applicants too shallow. We are competing for the same students. Although the bidding war is good for those students, it does little to advance our objective.

We need a different approach – and I have a model that works. While president of Beloit College, in Beloit, Wis., I initiated a program for grade-school children to address this issue. (I wrote about it on the Monitor's Opinion Page in 1989.) The results were astounding: 41 percent of the children stayed with the program though elementary, middle, and high school, and 95 percent of them went on to college.

Now that I have "passed the baton" at Union, my efforts are focused on creating, like a proverbial Johnny Appleseed, after-school academies on college campuses across the educational landscape for at-risk, grade-school children. In the process, the pipeline to college for these students will be broadened.

The features of these academies (there are now four across the country) are an early start (third grade) because most experts agree that third grade is the last year to connect with students before "the light goes out"; a set curriculum of science, math, and civics, developed by National Board Certified Teachers; parental (or surrogate) involvement so that what is done in the academy is not undone at home; a community board of school and college personnel; and one-on-one college mentors.

Yet the key element of the academies is their location on a college campus. As I saw in those first days at Beloit in 1989, and as I saw again in academies established this year, the moment grade schoolers set foot on campus, college becomes part of their future. Their grades and test results improve, as, of course, do their prospects.

Ask any of these students where they go to school, and they will answer with the name of the college, not their grade school. Perhaps that is the finest validation of the academies. If the horizons of third graders can be broadened, if we can get to them before it is too late, the ramifications – for them, for our colleges, for our economy, for our nation – are great.

To be successful, efforts like these will have to surmount serious challenges. Two stand out: Major funders such as Mr. Gates have so far set different priorities; and college presidents must be convinced to invest in the effort. After all, if the "life expectancy" of a college president is less than eight years, it will take presidents with vision to invest in a program in which children will not be college-bound for 10 years – well after the presidents will have left their positions.

If we really desire to change the lives of at-risk children and broaden the pipeline to college, we must do something far different from what my former colleagues and I have long done. So, I'll continue, like Don Quixote, to tilt at the Gates windmill.

• Roger Hull, a former president of Beloit College and Union College, is the founder of Help Yourself Foundation, which helps at-risk children get on the path to college.

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