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Straight Up Conversation: KIPP CEO Richard Barth on the College Completion Challenge

By Rick Hess — June 20, 2011 8 min read
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Richard Barth is CEO and President of the KIPP Foundation, supporting KIPP schools that now enroll over 27,000 students at 99 campuses. Just recently, KIPP released its long-term study of its earliest cohorts--those students who had completed eighth grade ten or more years ago from its initial Houston and New York City campuses. The report found that 33% had finished college within six years. These results were cheered by some as “a substantial and commendable improvement relative to today’s status quo” and a welcome example of transparency. At the same time, the KIPP leadership readily noted that these results mean even its heralded schools can do much better. Last week, I had the chance to chat with Richard about the findings, what KIPP’s learning about getting its kids through college, and the risks and rewards of this kind of transparency.

Rick Hess: So, you all recently issued a report tracking the first cohort of KIPP students. What prompted you all to do the research? After all, most middle schools don’t track the college completion rate of their alums.
Richard Barth: We’ve been committed to tracking--and these are, again, our original eighth graders--since the beginning. There’s been this commitment, starting back with [KIPP founders] Mike [Feinberg] and Dave [Levin], to make sure that we’re preparing our kids for success in college and in life. We’ve been tracking this data and a couple things made us say, “Is there something here that we should be sharing more broadly?” The accepted practice for tracking kids when it comes to college completion is six years out of high school; our first couple classes were hitting that mark. And we needed to tell that story internally because we have a huge wave coming. We have 1,000 KIPPsters in college today and will have over 10,000 in 2015. And we realized if we didn’t get the story of what we’re learning out to the KIPP network, we’d be deeply regretting it in 5 years.

RH: So what did you learn?
RB: First, our kids are outperforming national averages for completion. Of our eighth graders, a third are finishing with a BA degree in six years, versus 31 percent of all US students. So we’re outperforming all Americans, and [doing] about four times what’s expected for low-income kids, which is about eight percent. We also learned that over 80% of our eighth graders are going to college, but only a third are finishing. So while we’re proud of what’s going on, given what they’ve done relative to the whole population, we think we can do better. We think there are a few core things we can do to get us to our next goal, which is a 50% completion rate over six years.

RH: What are those key things you need to do?
RB: The number one thing is academic rigor. We’ve committed to going kindergarten through twelfth grade in KIPP schools across the country. The original cohorts that we just [reported upon] only got fifth through eighth grade. So [we’re going to] start with our kids earlier and stay with them longer. The second thing is we’ve got to do a much better job of finding the right match when it comes to college. We are sending too many of our kids off to campuses that have low graduation rates. We know that even at each level of selectivity, there are schools that have a much higher graduation rate than others. So we’re convinced that one of the simplest and clearest things we can do is to form partnerships with colleges that are doing a better job of not just taking kids, but seeing that they finish. We also think we can do a better job of making sure our KIPPsters are better aware of the financial costs of college and are preparing for that. It is pretty clear that as the original KIPPsters went off to high school, they weren’t sure what it was going to take from a financial standpoint to get to college. We’re piloting a match savings program, so for every dollar a family commits, they can get a match dollar.

RH: What’s that entail?
RB: With a grant from Citigroup, we’re piloting a match college savings program in five regions. We want to [see] whether poor families, if given an opportunity to save with a match, will put money away for college. We’re also doing a partnership with the University of Chicago, they are doing a financial literacy program called “6-to-16" and we’re rolling that out to 18 schools, and trying to build a powerful online curriculum.

RH: Regarding that 33% college complete rate, some critics have asked, “Is that really four times the comparable cohort, given that KIPP students have chosen to attend and then have completed KIPP schools?”
RB: Again, we welcome these tough questions. What the Mathematica research is showing is, in the case of academic readiness, our fifth graders are coming in really, really behind. They are coming in farther behind the students in districts in which these schools are located. Over time, our research is showing that our schools can make a big difference. And we’re incredibly proud of our outcomes.

RH: Once kids are in college, any thoughts about what KIPP can or should do?
RB: We need to make sure that once they are on campus, we’re doing things to help with their social and academic integration. We’re looking to get 25 pilots set up in the next 13 or 14 months with colleges to make sure that when first generation kids of color get on campus, the set-up is conducive to them not just starting, but finishing, college. One idea we’re working with is having upper classmen, as their work study program, being responsible for welcoming in a new cohort of freshmen. New students have to deal with admissions, with enrollment, with financial aid, and get their courses...While so many of us went to college knowing how that world works, for our [KIPP] kids, there’s no one in their family who had the experience before. So we need to make sure there is someone looking at it from their perspective, to make sure they get enrolled in the right courses.

RH: Any big takeaways as to what colleges may be doing wrong when it comes to serving KIPP alums?
RB: There are a lot of colleges that have very low completion rates. Does the public understand that on many campuses across the country, only one-in-three or one-in-four freshmen complete college? Why is that? Rigor is one. There are kids who get to college and end up in remedial courses and face this long uphill climb. [But] it’s more than the kids not being prepared. The way financials work for higher ed, they get paid during the first semester and then lose kids over the course of the year. A lot of institutions are like gyms--which advertise at New Year’s and again at the beginning of summer and then count on the fact that only one-in-three people will come in regularly, after they’ve taken your money up front.

RH: When you look at the outcomes, do you see anything that’s made you think you need to retool elements of the KIPP model if you’re going to equip kids to complete college?
RB: We have kids at far too many campuses given our numbers, and we haven’t been using good third-party information and our own experience to drive the counseling process. We have a little over 1,000 kids on over 300 campuses... If we could have 30, 40, 50, 100, or 200 kids on a campus, the social capital is huge. So we’ve made a mistake, and we would not have 1,000 KIPPsters on 300 campuses. The second thing is we made a mistake not recognizing that we’d need to get into the business of high schools. And we paid a price. We sent a lot of our kids to high schools that we thought would keep the progress going and they didn’t. Now we have 15 high schools across the country, so we’re getting into that business, but it’s too late for the original cohort. The third thing is to make sure that what we’re learning informs our schools and our kids. This is early stage, but the vast majority of our kids are going to college within 200 miles of home. On some level, it makes all the sense in the world, but the reality is some of those matches aren’t good fits. There are specific situations where helping our families understand that their child, if they have the option of going away to school, is a really good thing. Waiting to twelfth grade to cultivate that understanding is too late.

RH: Some observers have asked whether some of the established instructional practices at KIPP may not do enough to prepare kids for college-level work. What’s your take on that?
RB: I do think it’s worth examining. As we’ve gotten into the high school business ourselves, there’s been a really big push on writing, which we think is a proxy for critical thinking skills. And we’re trying to learn how to let go of the supports and scaffolding [so as] to let kids be more responsible for decisions on their own. Our middle schools are highly structured, and as we’ve gotten into high schools, we’ve realized we have to prepare them for a world with far less structure. We’ve got to get better at that.

RH: Transparency is always a complicated thing when it comes to edu-reform. For any successful provider, examining these long-term may complicate a seemingly happy story. That’s one of the reasons, I’d argue, we see few efforts of this kind. That downside is doubly true for KIPP, when you consider that you’ve got a big profile and skeptics who have been energetic when it comes to questioning KIPP’s record. Can you talk a bit about the costs of this kind of transparency?
RB: So the cons of doing this, externally, you’re doing research for the skeptics, you’re giving them the ability to come in and criticize, to say, “Look, only a third of their kids are getting a BA.” The upside is, first, it keeps everyone at KIPP--and we now have over 2,000 staff--aligned with the very real picture of what we signed up for and how difficult this is. Our teachers know from the beginning that this is the mountain we’re climbing. And second, we hope it plays a small part in helping people redefine success. One risk is we’ve learned “to college” is not “through college.” The whole country is focusing on high school graduation rates and getting kids to college. We’re shedding light on the fact that the difference between “to college” and “through college” is massive. And lastly, this is a topic that a lot of people are scared to talk about, what happens to first-generation kids of color who go to college. We want to make it safe to have a dialogue on this. And we want to make sure people understand that what we’ve done is an incredible accomplishment even if it’s short of where we want to go.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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