It’s hard to remember 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 am the CEO of KIPP Schools. Today, KIPP has 242 schools and every day more than 100,000 students pass through our doors. Just under 90% of our students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. More than 15,000 KIPP alumni are currently in college, and KIPP alumni are graduating from college at higher rates than the general US population.
We have also come to see that going to college is not the same as finishing college. So, over the past decade, we’ve developed more than 90 university partners working to create a stronger path to completion for first-generation students. Today, a third of KIPP high school students will enroll with one of these partners. We are still in the early days of this work, but great examples of what can be different are already emerging.
Here is a story of a private liberal arts college worth sharing. Lycoming College is a small liberal arts college located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The origins of the institution date back to 1812 and it began to award BA and BS degrees in the mid-20th century. Lycoming has educated young people with limited financial resources for years. Historically, approximately 30% of Lycoming students have been eligible for the Pell Scholarship. Most of these students came from small towns in Pennsylvania and New York State. It has a history of driving social mobility.
Selected by the Lycoming College Board of Trustees in 2012 as its next president, Kent Trachte, Ph.D., came to Lycoming from Franklin and Marshall. Kent and the board recognized that Lycoming could build on its heritage of working with first-generation 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 attend Lycoming. Today, 45% of Lycoming students are eligible for Pell, with the majority of these students coming from urban areas. In 2013, Lycoming’s freshman class included 13% students of color from the United States, whereas today that number is around 35%. More importantly, 75% of KIPP alumni who enroll are either persistent or graduate. Students of color graduate at the same rate as white students at Lycoming. Additionally, Lycoming’s graduation rate among students from low-income families is just under 70%.
I visited Lycoming to try to understand how it went. Here’s the bottom line: it takes commitment and hard work on everyone’s part. The college has created a bridging program for KIPP and similar student groups that uses the proven tools of cohorts, faculty, and peer mentors. Lycoming has created a retention fund so that students do not have to drop out of school due to unforeseen expenses or a family crisis. They reworked their career guidance by integrating guidance counselors into groups of university departments and created a much better ratio of guidance counselors to students. Lycoming counselors are responsible for contacting and helping each student in their care to design a plan during and after college. Financially, Lycoming is committed to meeting 100% of KIPP student needs, based on the student’s billable cost and FAFSA results. They do this through a combination of federal and state grants, federal Stafford loans, and significant scholarships and grants from Lycoming College. This allows KIPP alumni to graduate with up to $27,640 in accumulated student debt over their four years at Lycoming.
Additionally, Lycoming has strengthened its financial commitment by providing numerous opportunities for KIPP alumni to obtain work both on and off campus through work-study positions in the community. This allows students to earn pocket money throughout the school year.
I also had the chance to speak with Ericka Booker, a KIPP New York alumna and Lycoming 2018 graduate. Erica didn’t downplay the challenges of transitioning from a big city to a small town, or d an all-African American and Latino high school to a predominantly white institution. But Erica liked that Lycoming was a liberal arts institution and she was able to explore multiple disciplines before deciding to major in Spanish. Lycoming’s size really made a difference to her – she felt she was not just a number in a class, but someone whose story many teachers were interested in. With small class sizes, teacher-student relationships were able to thrive.
It is all too clear that higher education must evolve. From where I’m sitting, America’s most selective colleges should aim to (at least) double the number of students from low-income families they enroll. Our flagship state institutions should reflect the demographics of their state (which they currently do not) rather than serve 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 opportunities and mobility to Americans. It’s a matter of leadership and the will to roll up your sleeves and get the job done.
Richard Barth is the CEO of the KIPP Foundation.