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Business Officer Magazine
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Finishing What We Start

The goals of college access and completion are much in the public eye. A session at the 2012 Annual Women Administrators in Higher Education (WAHE) conference in Washington, D.C., in September, gave cause for optimism when early engagement leads students to the higher education path.

By Carole Schweitzer

"College completion is and should continue to be the major force of our collective efforts within the higher education arena," said Monica Gray, program director, College Success Foundation. Her comment introduced the presentation "Finishing What We Start: Overcoming Barriers to College Completion for Lower Income, First Generation College Students." Moderated by Vanessa Correa, retention adviser for the Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program, Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria, the session was part of the 2012 Annual Women Administrators in Higher Education (WAHE) conference in Washington, D.C., in September. (Read also, "WAHE Conference: Leadership Challenges," in the November 2012 issue of Business Officer magazine.)

Correa and copresenters highlighted the importance of early and ongoing support for students—particularly first-generation and low-income individuals often left behind in the quest for college acceptance and completion. Several examples of effective programs in the Washington, D.C., area, demonstrated the results that can happen when adequate resources—and ongoing mentoring and advising—are available to students.

Four Ways to Forge a Brighter Future

The District of Columbia's College Success Foundation (CSF), funded by a significant grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began in 2007 and uses a four-part model to engage and support students such that a college education is not a distant dream:

  • Early engagement during middle school.
  • College advising and mentoring during high school.
  • Scholarships and mentoring in college.
  • Postgraduate support and giving back.

The program addresses the critically low college graduation rates of students in D.C. public schools, particularly in Wards 7 and 8. (According to a Gates Foundation study, only 3 percent of students entering ninth grade in those wards graduated from college within five years of completing high school—compared to a national graduation rate of 23 percent.) "The work starts in seventh grade," explained Gray, "where students are given a positive vision for their future. In-school programs begin to teach students how best to prepare for high school and college. And our middle school coaches help to bridge that often-difficult transition to ninth grade."

When it comes to scholarships, the organization has been able to award 760 of them from 2008 through 2011. The program's very first graduate, Kierrah Norman, earned her undergraduate degree in rehabilitation services from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. In an interview for CSF's 2011‒12 annual report, "Putting Students on the Path to Success," Norman, who is pursuing a master's degree in mental health counseling while working full time, said, "My life calling is to show people how to find the resources they need to help themselves."

In this way, CSF scholars serve as role models helping to expand the culture of college success.

Self-Confidence Helps Turn the Corner

In a similar initiative, the Meyers Institute for College Preparation at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., combines support from corporate and individual donors with a cadre of student and faculty volunteers and community supporters, to promote student interest and motivation toward the pursuit of a college education.

 Part of the challenge in such an effort, noted Joy Dingle, associate director for the institute, is "to build a sense of self-worth in students who often come from areas where education is not valued by their peers."

The institute has been hard at work since 1989, and so have its students, who attend half-day Saturday classes on Georgetown's main campus during fall and spring semesters all during grades 7 through 12. During their precollege summer, Dingle explained, institute staff members facilitate communication among graduating students' college admissions offices, financial aid offices, faculty advisers, and assistant deans, with whom students will interact during those first critical months on campus.

Britney Crawford, who graduated in 2010 with a degree from Howard University, thanks to six years of Meyer Institute support, told session attendees, "The families of first-generation students often have never heard of student aid or scholarships. We don't even know this kind of support is out there." Crawford, however, was a quick study and a determined participant in the institute's activities. "School on Saturday? It was a challenge, but fun." The Meyer Institute program, said Crawford, "allowed me to conquer my fear of going to college ... it enabled me to have the knowledge and confidence to obtain my degree."

Like Kierrah Norman, Crawford has only just begun on her educational path. She's set her sights on a Ph.D. in public policy. "In five years, I see myself as Dr. Britney Crawford, archivist, professor, and founder of a group home for young women or possibly a nonprofit for underprivileged individuals."

 "If we truly can help more students finish what they start," concluded Correa, "a critical mass of graduates can build momentum for those who follow them."

 CAROLE SCHWEITZER is senior editor, Business Officer.