School & District Management

KIPP Middle School Students More Likely to Enroll in College, Seek 4-Year Degrees

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 26, 2019 4 min read
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Back in 1994, the first Knowledge Is Power Program schools were created to help more low-income and minority students get to college. Twenty-five years later, the first independent longitudinal evaluation of the nation’s largest charter school network finds it’s meeting that goal.

Students who choose to attend KIPP middle schools are nearly 13 percentage points more likely than their peers to enroll in a four-year degree program after high school, according to a new Mathematica study.

“Finding an impact of that size was really interesting, and I think opens the door to a lot of questions about what will happen in the future for these students,” said Ira Nichols-Barrer, a senior researcher at Mathematica and co-author of the study. “There’s clearly a pathway here that’s working, linking these middle school students’ outcomes to these longer-run outcomes.”

The study follows 1,177 students who applied to 13 KIPP middle schools from 2008-2010. All of the schools were oversubscribed, so enrollment was set by lottery. Researchers tracked students over then next decade, comparing students who did not receive a spot to students who were invited to attend, and then to students who actually attended KIPP. They used data from a federal database of postsecondary students to find which students entered a four-year degree program directly after high school and how many stayed enrolled in college for at least four semesters:

Students who were invited to attend KIPP middle schools were significantly more likely to enroll later in a four-year college even if they chose not to attend, but the benefit was nearly double for students who did attend the schools. Nearly 52 percent of KIPP middle schoolers attended four-year colleges, compared to 39 percent of students who had not been chosen in the school lotteries. There were no differences between the KIPP students and others in whether the colleges they attended were highly selective.

Chrystal Griffin, principal of the KIPP Star Middle School in Harlem, credited her curriculum and teachers’ “one to one feedback to students” with motivating them to go to college.

“We really place a large emphasis on meeting our students where they are and getting them really invested in understanding their role within the larger context of the world,” she said. “Our preteens are far off from college, so we really buy them in with this idea that they can make change [in the world] and have a lot of choices that are going to be open to them if they are able to solidify themselves with certain skills.”

The KIPP network has expanded rapidly, from 180 schools in 2015 to 240 today, overwhelmingly serving low-income students and students of color. Mathematica’s findings build on prior studies of KIPP middle schools, which had found benefits for students in math and reading, but no improvement in motivation or engagement.

Richard Barth, KIPP’s CEO, said the network significantly expanded its programs to encourage middle and high school students to go to college in the decade since the current study began.

“Ten years ago, if I was at a KIPP school in this study, I got support to apply to college, but there was no science behind it; someone would say, ‘Richard, you’ve got to get going on this,’ ” Barth said. “Even in 2014 I met a young woman in Austin, Texas, who had applied to Austin Community College—and Harvard. And I said, ‘This is great. Um, and what else?’ There’s a lot of other good schools out there.”

The network has begun to provide students and their parents with analyses of students’ grades and interests, linked to six recommended colleges of various levels of selectivity.

College Persistence

The study also looked at college persistence. One in three students who had attended KIPP middle schools persisted in college for at least four semesters, compared to fewer than 1 in 4 students who did not attend KIPP, but those results were not statistically significant.

The study did not include in that calculation students who enrolled in two-year programs with plans to transfer to four-year colleges because “community college or associate’s degree completion really isn’t the core goal that the KIPP network is trying to pursue,” Nichols-Barrer said, though he noted future studies might look into two-year degrees also.

Researchers looked at other ways of measuring persistence, such as the percentage of students enrolled in college two springs after their graduation or the percentage of all possible college semesters that a student had attended. All of these measurements showed similar trends: positive, but not significant.

“It’s really an early snapshot about the patterns of persistence with these students, but they haven’t been in college long enough to know for sure exactly what’s going on,” Nichols-Barrer said, noting that the researchers hope to continue to follow the students through six years after college, to see whether more former KIPP students complete their degrees.

There are some provisos. About 16 percent of students in the control group attended a KIPP middle or high school at some point after those first lotteries, though the researchers found that these students spent on average less than a year in KIPP schools. Likewise, about a third of students who attended KIPP middle schools went on to attend KIPP high schools, but the researchers were not able to incorporate differences in the students’ high school experiences.

Photo: Teacher Wren Gadwa leads a 5th-grade writing lesson at Key Academy in Washington in 2006. The public charter was one of 13 middle schools run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, to participate in a national longitudinal study of schools . It found that KIPP students make larger learning gains than similar students in regular public schools.

--Christopher Powers/Education Week-File

Chart: Mathematica

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.