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What's Working in College Access?


Opportunity created today leads to prosperity tomorrow. And that opportunity begins with education.
 
This was the message Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, delivered in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte earlier this month. 
 
For twenty minutes, in front of millions of viewers, Castro cast a spotlight on the importance of education to the nation's future, and to the health of our cities. He talked about improving access to pre-K. He called student loans "a smart investment in a workforce that can fill and create the jobs of tomorrow." He tied San Antonio's top-performing local economy to its commitment to education. And he called out Café College, a one-stop college access center providing counseling and assistance with college search, applications, financial aid, and special services for transfers and Spanish-speaking students.
 
This month in Talent Dividend Network, we're looking at college access: How it's working in cities, how it's changing, and where we hope it will lead us in the next ten years or so. It's lucky for us that Mayor Castro sounded this ringing call for a focus on access on a national stage. But let's take a deeper look at what it means to improve access, why it's important, and where it will take us in the near future.
 
What's working in college access: A focus on community 
 
We asked Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, to share cities and states doing exemplary work in college access. Not surprisingly, in the afterglow of Mayor Castro's speech at the DNC, San Antonio was one of them. 
 
Eyra Perez, executive director of the San Antonio Education Partnership, says a strong focus on the community's existing resources -- and a sense of realism about how much work these efforts can be -- have been key to the city's success. 
 
"There are a lot of pockets of excellent work taking place," Perez says. "What we have purposely done is build connections between all that of work, bring it all together into working toward one vision and one mission for the city, and break down the silos."
 
Perez recommends taking an intensive and honest inventory of everything that's happening in your city. 
 
"There are best practices all over this nation, but our most important and effective work is being done in our own communities," Perez says. 
 
If you're not doing something, don't stretch the truth, she adds. When you are aware of the gaps, you can direct resources to work that still needs to be done. San Antonio realized that little of their college access work was focused on grades 4 through 7, so when a non-profit was approached by a donor who wanted to know what no one was doing, they were able to target that support to late elementary and middle school initiatives. 
 
In Michigan, a strong statewide college access network has created a unique framework of local college access networks. Those LCANs focus intensively on individual communities, bringing local leadership, commitment, and authentic support to common college access goals. 
 
Each LCAN has a team of CEO-level leaders representing higher ed, K-12, business, government, community organizations and nonprofits. All of the leaders agree on a common set of goal for students living within those communities and commit to track data transparently on the goals they set.
 
There are 48 LCANs throughout the state of Michigan, including five neighborhood-based LCANs in the city of Detroit. This on-the-ground focus has helped create better systems for everyone. 
 
"[Detroit's LCANs] have to get data on their current college-going rates for their high schools. In Michigan, very few have ever done that, relying instead on senior exit surveys," which aren't completely reliable, says Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network. "We help individual communities get verified college enrollment data for their graduates, analyze it to identify their biggest gaps, and strategically locate target resources to fill those gaps." 
 
Perez and Johnson both believe that true, strong partnerships, while difficult, are vital to college access work. 
 
"Some folks feel that we're trying to do too much, but we've seen so much progress," Perez says. "The reason they want to be involved is for the collective impact we're making, and for the shared vision. That's a big change in one year: a shift from 'me' to the community."
 
"It's hard work," she adds. "But everyone wants to continue playing; everyone still talks to each other."
 
Michigan has taken a somewhat more direct approach to the problem of difficult partnerships. 
 
"Our LCANs are all professionally staffed, which is a little different from loose alliances between organizations," says Johnson. "We mean business with our LCANs. These need to be formal alliances. Having someone who wakes up every morning knowing it's their job to increase college-going rates by leveraging existing resources is kind of a game-changer."
 
What's changing in college access: A focus on success 
 
Until recently, strategies to improve access ostensibly focused on breaking down the barriers that prevent students from going to college: financial, racial, societal, practical, academic, aspirational, and psychological. 
 
But in the last decade or so, a question began to challenge advocates of the college access agenda: Does it matter if we improve access to college if those students don't succeed at completing their degrees? 
 
Where did this conversation come from? 
 
"As our programs became more data-driven, we saw a new set of issues," says Kim Cook. Once students are on campus, they are operating in a completely new environment with a different language and a different set of rules and procedures. Students may not know how to drop or class, or how to take advantage of tutoring programs, math labs, or office hours. Navigating the bureaucracy of the financial aid office alone can be a major stumbling block.
 
As students who needed help began to turn to the trusted relationships they built with college access networks during high school, a systemic problem became clear.
 
"Many of our programs said: We need to address this broadly, not just individually," Cook says. 
 
Now it is common to see college access efforts paired with or expanded to include success efforts. Among its membership, NCAN has seen a number of strategies that work for improving success, such as summer orientation programs, placing advisors on campus or making more advisors available through email and social media, and partnering with higher ed institutions to make them aware of the challenges that students face.  
 
But broadening access efforts to include success shouldn't draw attention away from efforts to improve college access, Cook says.
 
"This conversation is a good one and an important one, but by no means does talking about success mean that we've solved the access issues," she says. "There are still great challenges and barriers to access, particularly for first-generation students and low-income students, and remaining disparities that need to be addressed. Nothing about this conversation should imply that access is offline."
 
Where college access takes us
 
A number of national benchmarks have been adopted by organizations across the country: the Obama administration has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and Lumina Foundation has set a goal to reach 60% degree attainment by 2025. Michigan's College Access Networks are also working toward Lumina's Goal 2025. College access efforts in San Antonio are part of a wider vision called SA2020 that aims to create a world-class city by the year 2020, focusing on eleven strategic goals; education (including college readiness, college graduation, and adult educational attainment) is one of them. 
 
These goals are all fine answers to "Where will we be in ten years?" But are they realistic? 
 
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Cook says. "When we look at this from an equity lens, we see which students are succeeding and which students continue to struggle with access and completion in much more challenging ways. We need the big numbers, and to get there we're going to have to do a lot of hard work. We're going to have to reach out to some students who haven't been encouraged or given the tools they need to access and complete."
 
What's working in your city to improve college access? Where do you intend to be in 10 years? We want to know! Share your thoughts on The Civic Commons.
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