Despite widespread efforts to increase college access and success for students from traditionally underrepresented communities, disparities in college degree attainment persist. Among first-time, full-time undergraduate students, Hispanic students and Black students graduate 13 and 24 percentage points less often than White students, respectively. Further, students from low and middle socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
These gaps are troubling, given the well-known benefits of a college degree, including increased lifetime earnings and job satisfaction. It is imperative that students who choose to pursue a college education have the supports they need to enroll and succeed.
Enter KIPP—the nation’s largest network of public charter schools—whose time- and resource-intensive approach to preparing students for college has proven effective in increasing college access and persistence. In contrast to national trends, students who attend KIPP charter schools attend and graduate from four-year colleges at significantly higher rates than similar peers from traditionally underrepresented communities. In fact, our research has shown that the impact of attending a KIPP middle and high school, extrapolated nationwide, would be large enough to nearly close the degree-completion gap for Hispanic students or entirely close the degree-completion gap for Black students in the United States.
The success of students in KIPP schools offers valuable lessons for how educators and policymakers can make college more accessible for more students, especially those from underrepresented groups.
KIPP schools ensure all students have access to rigorous high school coursework and intensive college counseling to help them enroll and persist in college.
According to interviews we conducted with KIPP regional staff, KIPP provides multiple forms of college supports that are making a difference for KIPP students.
Widespread access to and participation in rigorous high school coursework. Research suggests that academic preparation in high school—including factors like grade point average and Advanced Placement (AP) course taking—can go a long way toward explaining who reaches college successfully. Many KIPP staff described how the network prepares students for the intellectual challenges of college by supporting all students to engage in college preparatory courses. Over the past decade, KIPP implemented a network-wide “AP for All” effort to expand access to and participation in AP classes. Now, all KIPP high schools offer AP courses, and more than three-fourths of high school seniors take at least one AP exam, a rate that is much higher than national rates of AP course taking among similar students.
Intensive counseling identifying college programs that match student abilities and needs. The availability and intensity of college counseling in KIPP schools is impressive relative to national trends. Student-to-counselor ratios in most school districts are 250:1 or higher, limiting access to individualized support. And, on average, districts with higher rates of Black or Hispanic students have even less access to school counselors. In KIPP high schools, the average student-to-counselor ratio is 100:1, and students receive comprehensive college counseling services from a designated college counselor. The KIPP network trains counselors to help students identify and apply to college programs that align to students’ academic and financial needs and have relatively high graduation rates (particularly for first-generation, Pell Grant–eligible students of color). Starting as early as 9th grade, college counselors host individual counseling sessions and workshops for students and their families. Finally, many KIPP regions offer programs for students in the summer between high school and college.
Access to academic and financial supports for high school alumni during college. In addition to offering supports during high school, KIPP regions offer access to academic and financial supports for students during college. For example, KIPP alumni can connect with an alumni advisor or peer mentor to check in on their academic progress and transcript. Alumni can also participate in on-campus meetups with advisors and other alumni to share their experiences and receive advice and emotional support. Finally, alumni can receive financial supports, which can range from small awards ($200–$300) to buy books and other supplies to larger scholarships.
Educators and school and district leaders should aim to make rigorous coursework and comprehensive college counseling supports available to all students.
KIPP’s expansive college preparatory curriculum and counseling programs require ample time and resources—these are scarce offerings in many school districts. However, educators and school and district leaders can adapt aspects of KIPP’s college-support model to fit their school context and capacity.
School leaders can ensure the school’s standard course sequence aligns to college admission requirements. School staff can also promote and streamline the enrollment processes for college preparatory courses, including AP and dual-enrollment courses, and encourage all students to participate.
Counselors should also aim to build individual relationships with students and their families, starting in the early years of high school, to help them navigate the complex college search and admission process. School leaders can support counseling staff to engage with resources on helping students identify colleges well matched to their goals and needs. When counseling capacity is limited, peer-mentoring programs can connect alumni or nearby college students with high schoolers. Schools might also consider offering supports for recent graduates in the summer before college to lower the risk of students failing to start college in the fall.
To encourage high school alumni to persist in college, school leaders and counselors can partner with community organizations to offer microgrants for college students. Counselors can also establish advising networks that connect recent alumni with high school staff to check in on their academic progress and share advice.
Policymakers have a central role in strengthening access to coursework and counseling as well.
Although KIPP schools may have the staffing and systems to carry out intensive college-support programs, many districts—especially those in traditionally underserved communities—do not currently have the capacity to deliver similar supports. Policymakers should advocate for increased funding and attention to initiatives that would increase widespread access to rigorous high school coursework in schools across the country. For example, policymakers can advocate for additional funds to hire and train staff with experience to teach college preparatory classes.
To enable counselors and other school staff to provide comprehensive college supports to students and families, policymakers should advocate to increase the number of counseling staff and strengthen their capacity. For example, policymakers can establish maximum caseload requirements for counselors, advocate for additional counselor positions, and require and fund high-quality training related to college counseling.
Finally, policymakers can fund specific programs that help recent high school graduates, such as advising for high school students in the summer before college or microgrants for students in their first few semesters of college. Policymakers can also encourage partnerships between high schools and local colleges, which can help college counselors build relationships with admissions staff and connect current college students with high school students.
The success of KIPP students demonstrates that, with the right systems and supports in place, schools can increase enrollment and success in college among underrepresented groups. To make college more accessible for students nationwide, educators, school and district leaders, and policymakers should seek to broaden access to rigorous high school coursework and comprehensive counseling.