College Opportunity Knocks, But Often Gets No Answer

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When Kauffman Scholars Inc. launched its college access program with a group of seventh-graders in 2003, administrators thought its promise of a free college education would be a big enough carrot to entice the youths to stick around.

It wasn’t long before they found out the hard way that inducing persistence – trying to get the horse that’s been led to water to drink – is impossible, and a new approach would be needed.

By the time Kauffman’s first group of youths, known as “Class 1 Scholars,” had reached their sophomore year in high school, 83 of the original 131 – almost two-thirds – had washed out of the program, missing out on an extremely rare, life-changing opportunity. 

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The Kauffman Scholars experience offers a series of valuable lessons for those in the business of college access. One of the most important is that simply placing a free college education in front of youths does not mean they’ll automatically have the mindset to succeed.

“They also must want to prepare to take full advantage of that opportunity,” said R. Stephen Green, president and CEO of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Scholars Inc.

Within the college access movement, Kauffman Scholars is distinct for the amount of time it commits to serving youth.

“There are plenty of (college prep) programs that start at middle grades,” said Vi-Nhuan Le, a RAND Corp. behavioral scientist who is conducting a longitudinal study of Kauffman Scholars through the year 2013. “But what makes [Kauffman Scholars] unique is that they not only start there, they provide a 10-year commitment.”

Launched with a $70 million grant from its parent organization, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Kauffman Scholars has set out to serve 2,300 youths from low-income families in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., over a 19-year period that ends in 2022.

In a nutshell, the program begins accepting applications from youths in the sixth grade, enlists them by the seventh grade, and provides intensive academic enrichment, college prep classes and social supports along the way.

For its middle school youths, the program functions as a twice-a-week after-school model that offers academic enrichment.

Once in the ninth grade, youths start to attend a “Saturday academy” once a month from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., during which they get instruction in math, science, English and life skills and a session with college coaches, who focus on everything from transcript readiness to resume building.

Test prep starts in the second semester of freshman year, with six four-hour sessions on Saturdays. Starting in the sophomore year, youths attend a “Scholars to Leaders” academy, where they meet once a month for three hours with their high school and college coaches. When they are juniors, the meetings take place once every other month, while for seniors, the academy meets four times a year.

In addition to their college coaches, the youths get “life coaches” who help them deal with various personal and family problems. The problems can be mundane but occasionally are more serious. One life coach said in an interview that he had to contact child protective services on behalf of a youth who was being abused. He said the family thanked him afterward.

Youths also get academic coaches who help them get through the second half of their K-12 experience.

“We don’t have that ‘skill-and-drill,’” said Lam Do, a former Kansas City schoolteacher who now serves as director of math curriculum and instruction for Kauffman Scholars. Rather, he said, the youths are guided to look more at the practical applications of math. Do said the extra math instruction helps the youths better understand the concepts introduced in school.

“Any urban schoolteacher will tell you that there are instances where you will come across students and if you just had an additional 25 minutes with them, you’d be able to make a huge difference,” Do said.

The academic enrichment appears to be paying off.

Thus far, the RAND study has found that Kauffman Scholars are generally performing better than their peers on state achievement tests and are attending school more frequently. However, those findings “warrant caution,” RAND says, because some of the same areas where Kauffman youths did better are also factors used as part of the admission process to the program, which requires youths to earn a C or better in all of their core subjects during the sixth grade.

The academic instruction is meant to improve the youths’ chances of gaining entry to and succeeding in college. That’s where college coaches such as Tanesha Nooner come in.

“We have a lot of conversations with scholars, as well as partners, to find out what a good fit would be,” Nooner said. “A lot of them are first-generation [college] students, and their families don’t have much exposure to the college admission process.”

After the youths enroll in college, as members of the first cohort did this fall, Kauffman Scholars follows up with mentors from Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as its own “college coaches,” who roam the country to counsel the youths throughout their college experience. The hope is that the youths will not leave campus until they have a college degree.

Perhaps most noteworthy, at a time when many youths are going to college but not completing due to economic concerns, Kauffman Scholars promises to cover any unmet costs for its scholars’ entire four-year education. The goal is to enable the scholars to do something that is enviable by almost any standard: to graduate from college 100 percent debt-free.

While virtually everyone applauds the organization for its mission, one of its central claims – that nearly all of its members go on to college – does not hold up under close scrutiny.

On its website, Kauffman Scholars Inc. claims that 95 percent of its Class 1 Scholars enrolled in college this fall. Technically that may be true, but only if one agrees with the way Kauffman Scholars doesn’t count those first 83 youths who washed out of the program.

Some dismiss Kauffman’s statements about the success rate as “propaganda of numbers.” But acting as though those 83 students never participated in the program belies the reality of how difficult it can be for college access organizations to retain youths, especially middle schoolers who are supposed to stick with the program for the long haul.

Daniel Katz, a college access advocate and college adviser with the 19-year-old California-based One Voice Robert W. Sanderson Scholars Program, said that while Kauffman Scholars has a “good and worthy model,” serving youths from middle school poses serious challenges.

“What makes starting college access work with middle-school kids so difficult is that it requires the depth and commitment of an organization, primarily the associated human and financial resources, for up to 11 years,” Katz said. “Many organizations will have a high turnover rate in the time period, and it is commonly misunderstood how many staff are needed to truly support a student and his or her family throughout high school and toward graduation from college.”

But as the Kauffman Scholars experience shows, supporting students is tough, even with a lot of staff members.

When many of the original members of the Class 1 Scholars started becoming disengaged from the program, administrators at Kauffman Scholars stressed the need for them to attend the college prep classes. But many “resisted and chose not to meet, or even come close to meeting, the minimal attendance expectation,” said Green, the president.

“Even after working diligently with these students for over a year, many were not able or chose not to participate further,” Green told Youth Today in a lengthy response to the newspaper’s inquiries about challenges the program has encountered. “They self-selected out of the program.”

Three years into the program – in 2006 – faced with a staggering number of vacancies, Kauffman Scholars began to replenish its numbers with 83 new youths who were then in the 10th grade. But that time, the agency employed a new strategy: Instead of relying on educators to nominate youths, the youths had to apply.

That simple change made all the difference in the world, according to Green, who said the youths’ level of commitment and engagement has been stronger ever since.

“This does not mean that the struggle for these scholars is any less,” Green said. “But they seem to be more receptive and responsive to our efforts to ‘coach’ them through the struggle and toward success.”

Green said the one time Kauffman decided to “replenish” its numbers was the only time it will allow that to happen. For successive groups, the retention rate will be based on how many of the original youths stay in the program.

Thus far, statistics provided by Kauffman show youths continue to leave or get kicked out of the program at troubling rates – a trend that is all the more troubling in light of the growing importance of a post-secondary degree and the ever-increasing costs of college.

The retention rate among the 255 original Class 2 scholars, who are now high school juniors, is 64 percent. Although that’s nearly twice the retention rate of the original Class 1 scholars at the same place in the program, as many as half of Class 2 could be gone by the time they graduate from high school in 2011.

“The majority of the reason why scholars drop out is due to disengagement,” Green said.

He said the reasons range from families moving outside the boundaries of the two school districts the program serves to simply not realizing the value of the program.

Some youths have been dismissed because their grades slipped below the required 2.0 (a C average), they were suspended from school or, to a lesser extent, because of illegal drug usage.

“Only after extensive intervention efforts do we consider dismissal,” Green said.

Green doesn’t believe the six-year stretch from seventh grade to college is the problem behind the troubling retention rates and wonders if retention might improve if youths were engaged at a lower grade.

Yet, even youths who really want the free college education say traversing the six-year period is often like walking a long tightrope.

“I stumbled a couple of times,” admitted 18-year-old Michael Gorius, a Class 1 Scholar who is now a freshman studying culinary arts and business management at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C.

Like other members of Class 1, Gorius was kicked out of Kauffman Scholars after he started socializing too much and his grades slipped below a C average.

He appealed and won his way back in, then made a dramatic turnaround. One of the program’s life coaches helped him overcome his procrastination habit and taught him some time-management skills. A different Kauffman Scholars instructor helped him better understand equations.

Today, evidence of Gorius’ success can be seen in the fliers advertising his services as a math tutor that he posts in his dorm hall at Johnson & Wales. He believes he would have found his way into college even without Kauffman Scholars but said the organization’s assistance greatly smoothed the path.

“I believe I would have made it, but Kauffman made it much easier,” he said.

As Gorius and other members of Class 1 make their way through their first year of college, the next leg of their journey – the months and years until graduation – will be more telling than anything Kauffman Scholars has accomplished thus far.

Green is confident that for the youths who are in the program and doing what it takes to succeed, Kauffman Scholars is making a major difference in their lives. But he added: “We won’t know for sure until our scholars start graduating from college in the next four years. But we seem to be doing something right for these kids, their families, and ultimately for our society.”

Contact: Kauffman Scholars, Inc., (816) 932-1235, http://www.kauffmanscholars.org.