College Counseling that Matters and Gets Results

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Headshot of Rich Buery, Chief of Policy and Public Affairs at the KIPP Foundation

Twenty-five years ago, KIPP was built on a promise: helping 47 fifth-graders from low-income families climb the mountain to and through college. But reaching this challenging goal proved to be more difficult than we originally thought.

We started with middle schools and realized they weren’t enough—so we expanded down to add elementary schools and then up to add high schools.

Then, eight years ago, we publicly published the college completion rates for the first two KIPP middle schools and saw that, although our graduates were significantly outperforming their socioeconomic peers in terms of college completion, the majority were still not graduating.

With over 27,000 alums, we have learned a lot about what we need to improve.

We have spent the last eight years expanding or deepening our work on college counseling and college persistence to move those numbers forward.

KIPP provides students with best-in-class college counseling, designed specifically to support those who are first-generation, students of color and students from low-income families.

We know that college counselors are critical to student success, but today’s counselors have caseloads that are simply unfathomable. Nationwide, the average student to counselor ratio is 482:1.  It is often higher in urban public high schools.

Today, KIPP’s high school counselor-student ratio averages 100 to 1. This is a significant resource commitment and we have seen it pay off.

If we want our students to graduate from college, one of the critical things we can do is help them choose the college that is right for them, based on the students’ interests and credentials, the school’s costs, culture, and graduate rates, and a host of other factors.

Part of this is a focus on preventing “undermatching”—the phenomenon where lower-income students are more likely to end up at a less-competitive college than they would otherwise be qualified to attend. Research shows that students who are under-matched are less likely to graduate on time.

Knowing how damaging under-matching can be, in 2014 KIPP developed the College Match program. Since then, the percentage of KIPP high school students applying to a strong mix of schools based on their academic credentials increased from 15 percent to 74 percent—meaning that more of students are likely to graduate.

And once students start college our persistence advisors provide academic, emotional and financial support to alumni through their college years.

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We continue to see positive results. KIPP alumni graduate from college at three times the national average for students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds (35 percent vs. 11 percent). And for students who graduate from KIPP high schools, that number jumps to 45 percent.

We’re proud of these results, but they’re not good enough.

We know we don’t have all the answers and that no one organization can solve this college completion crisis alone.

But we do believe that our experiences—and more importantly, the experiences of our alumni—give us some insight into what we as a nation can do better, that’s why we came out with a report this month, The Promise of a Choice-Filled Life, where we detail five recommendations to help students from low income families, first generation college students, and students of color succeed in college and career.

In the report, we call on Congress to reauthorize the Higher Education Act—this is our once in a decade chance to provide more students with a fairer shot at a college degree. We ask Congress to reduce student to counselor ratios and implement evidence-based counseling solutions that we know drive better results for our students, like talking about career pathways.

Our counselors need to talk about career pathways too. We know from experience that it’s important to start talking to students about careers early on—beginning in elementary school and continuing through higher education. And, we have to do a better job advising students who want to pursue training programs in skilled trades, applied sciences, and modern technologies.

Together, we have the opportunity to give low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students a fair shot at success in college and beyond.


Rich Buery is the chief of policy and public affairs at the KIPP Foundation

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