'To College, Through College' initiative creates culture of success

'To College, Through College' is a public/private partnership with a lofty goal: increasing the percentage of Grand Rapids students who not only head off to college but also walk across the stage years later, diploma in hand. Marla R. Miller finds out why boosting college attainment benefits the whole community -- and what the community needs to do to make it possible.
Short a few hundred dollars for books. Missing too many classes due to transportation or family problems. Simply feeling homesick or like they don’t fit in at college.

The reasons why students drop out of college are varied, and a group of community leaders have come together to examine ways to boost college retention and completion for Grand Rapids Public Schools’ graduates. In recent years, nearly 60 percent of GRPS students have enrolled in college. But only 18 percent graduate.

The “To College, Through College” Initiative aims to increase post-secondary success for all people, particularly first-generation college students, low-income and African American and Hispanic populations, and increase the educational attainment and talent pool for the city and region.

“We have to figure out how we can ensure that all persons, and people of color in particular, have equal access and the resources to be successful,” says Lynn Heemstra, executive director of Our Community’s Children. “It affects our region’s viability and economic sustainability in the long run and certainly enhances the quality of life for everyone. We need a diverse workforce. We need an educated workforce.”

Headed by Our Community’s Children, a public/private partnership between the City of Grand Rapids, GRPS and community partners, the TCTC initiative involves a task force of representatives from more than 20 organizations, including government, public schools, higher education, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations and businesses.

Many of those organizations came together last month for the “To College, Through College” summit, gathering students and community leaders to discuss the issue. Mayor George Heartwell also gave a call to action for the community to join the movement to work on post-secondary success.

The TCTC committee has been at the work about a year, first assessing the data and current resources for college students. The group’s mission: To increase the number of GRPS students not only entering college, but finishing with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree through a collective and aligned community response.

The goal is to increase degree attainment from 18 to 40 percent beginning with the GRPS’ 2013 and 2014 graduating classes, with a sub-goal of increasing completion rates for minority and first-generation students.

“We have a responsibility as a community to effectively serve all of the people of our community,” says Dr. Rhae-Ann Booker, executive director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Davenport University and chair of the “To College, Through College” Initiative. “If we look at the data as it relates to post-secondary enrollment and success, the data clearly reflects that there are some populations we are not serving well.”

Our Community’s Children received a grant from the Lumina Foundation to help fund the work. Other national partners include the National League of Cities Post-Secondary Success for Cities and America’s Promise Alliance. Last fall, the presidents of Aquinas College, Calvin College, Davenport University, Ferris State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University signed a pledge to participate.

“We were so pleased that more and more of our GRPS kids are graduating, test scores are up, college enrollment is up,” Heartwell says. “Those indicators are strong. And then we looked at college completion and we were just stunned. Only 18 percent actually complete college. Then we began to look at what the schools are doing to prepare kids, and what the universities are doing for remediation or the living and social skills. In both cases, in high school and college, there are good programs in place.

“The question is ‘what’s missing?’” he says. “The community is missing. We haven’t, as a community, stepped up to walk alongside our children and make sure once they are in college, they actually complete college and come out with marketable skills that make them productive citizens and create wealth for themselves and in the community.”

From left, Samantha Przybylski, Lynn Heemstra, Shannon Harris, Kelsey Perdue.Every 1 percent increase in the percentage of the city’s population with a college degree is worth $151 million per year to the economy of Grand Rapids, Heartwell says. But the benefits go beyond monetary.

“Anyone who is a college graduate understands how education adds to our quality of life, makes us curious, more interesting, the learning habits that you will have for the rest of your life,” he says.

The “To College, Through College” effort focuses on GRPS, but the group’s work and recommendations could expand to other districts and programs as the initiative evolves, Heemstra says.

Currently, only 34 percent of the region’s workforce holds an associate’s degree or higher. By 2025, 64 percent of all regional jobs will require post-secondary education, Heemstra says.

“This city is growing very quickly,” she says. “We need to pay attention to how we support our young people so we can attract and retain young talent. It’s so important they see that they have a future in their city and their community.

“There is an economic reason as well,” Heemstra says. “Grand Rapids gets measured by the number of college degrees of its population. Businesses choose whether they will come to a city based on the workforce and educational attainment.”

The TCTC committee meets the first Wednesday of every month. Some of the organizations at the table include representatives from the city and GRPS, colleges and universities, Talent 2025, Grand Rapids Urban League, The Hispanic Center, Arbor Circle, Spectrum Health, Michigan Works!, Grand Rapids Initiative for Leaders, Endless Opportunities, Literacy Council and other area churches and businesses.

“The most exciting thing is having the different organizations that represent different sectors of our community spending time at the table learning from each other and developing different strategies,” Booker says. “We’re making sure we’re not just running out of the gate. We’re trying to build an infrastructure that’s sustainable, whether that’s existing services or new services that really reflect an understanding of our community.”

The committee has several focus areas, including tracking how GRPS students are doing at local colleges and universities, examining gaps in services and communication and messaging.

“We’re not doing a good enough job of connecting the students and their families to the existing services,” Booker says. “There are often discussions about new initiatives, but we are also finding that we have lots of very good existing programs that are being under-utilized.”

As a Ferris State University professor, Dr. Tony Baker hears multiple reasons why students either flunk or drop out. As president of the Grand Rapids Public Schools board of education, he has a vested interest in examining the problem and finding ways to help students stay in school.

“None of us have a job to do this; it’s part of some other job,” he says. “At a personal level, I have just seen a small little problem, a student is a couple hundred dollars short on books, and they end up going home. I just see too many students not able to make it and they deserve to make it.”

Students face all sorts of obstacles, usually involving family and finances. Some students have to quit school to help care for an ill parent or younger siblings. Others cite problems with transportation, work commitments, personal issues or simply feel like they need a break.

“When they’re done with their break, they don’t know how to get back to college,” he says. “They’re afraid to ask questions about financial aid and don’t know they can borrow a few hundred dollars for books. Or they need to take care of things at home and are afraid to talk to their professors.”

There's one myth the data does dispel – that students aren’t motivated and families don’t care about higher education. For many first-generation students, it may be something as simple as not getting their parents’ tax information in time to fill out the FAFSA form to qualify for financial aid, Baker says. And there are still racial and social issues that need addressed.

“GRPS has done a really good job of creating a much more aware culture of how to get to college, but still, it’s different when you live in a community where all your friends have gone on to college,” he says. “Race came up a lot, students feeling singled out about being the only African American or Latino in class. Mentorship is low-hanging fruit. We can find professionals who experience those feelings and can help a student to navigate that.”

While attending community college works for some, many students do not understand the education required for a particular career, if they should go to a two-year or four-year college and how to make the transition. The biggest drop out is between the second and third year of college.

“We’re looking at ‘how do we ensure young people know what options exist for them that best match their interests and their needs so that they can be successful,’” Heemstra says. “There are huge costs associated with college whether you’re successful or not. Young people need to see what kind of careers exist out there for them that are real and tangible and how can they take the path that will lead them into those careers.”

Most everyone agrees there are many programs and organizations working to help support students, but the community is still falling short when it comes to retention rates. Rather than duplicate services, the point is to get to the root of the problem.

“We’re currently building a collaborative and collective approach as to how we help students get to and through college,” Heemstra says. “We are being very intentional about integrating community-based services (i.e., mental health, housing, employment) into that work. So, it’s really bringing higher education and community-based and faith-based organizations and all these players together to see what can we do collectively to help students get to and through college.”

The Lumina grant is through 2016, and the TCTC group will develop a plan of action with recommendations and deliverables, Heemstra says. That may include support for existing programs, such as mentoring or encouraging churches to keep in better contact with their college students, or developing additional supports such as college success centers that offer guidance, counseling and referral services. Those would be based in the community versus at any one college or university.

“Right now, we are researching best practices across the nation, we are looking at the data,” she says. “We are listening to the voices of young people. What we heard specifically at the summit is young people really need to have people reaching out to them. If they’re having trouble with something or they have dropped out of college, for people to take the extra step and ask ‘what’s going on, what can we do to help you get back on track?’”

For more information on “To College, Through College," contact Heemstra at (616) 456-4353 or email [email protected]

This piece was made possible through a partnership with InspirED Michigan, a project of the Michigan Public Schools Partnership. MPSP is a coalition of more than 50 education-related organizations, school districts and individuals committed to promoting the good news about Michigan public schools. To subscribe to the monthly e-newsletter, click here.

Marla R. Miller is a professional writer, pelvic health educator, social activist and deep thinker who enjoys writing articles that enlighten, inspire and get people to think. As a former newspaper reporter, she also believes real community journalism still matters. To learn more about her work, visit http://marlarmiller.com/, or email her with feedback or story ideas at [email protected]

Photography by Adam Bird