You are here


The College Promise

Some districts are creating innovative programs to inspire all students to pursue higher education.

College fees and tuition are rising—430 percent since 1982. Student borrowing for college has more than doubled since 1998, and about 50 percent of lower-income students head to college following high school, compared to 80 percent of high-income students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Various public school districts are devising creative programs to encourage every student, not just those who can afford it or have high grades, to think of attending college.

Nate Easley, deputy director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, last summer attended the inaugural PromiseNet conference in Kalamazoo, Mich., a gathering of 250 people ranging from superintendents to mayors to philanthropists, all looking for ways to combine support networks and scholarship monies effectively.

Easley sees real potential from the philanthropic side. “Government programs are very successful but limited,” says Easley, who has also worked for the federal Upward Bound grant program much of his career. “They only serve about 10 percent of the eligible population, and it comes with a lot of strings attached that in some ways limits innovation. A privately funded, 501(c)(3) can move fast and change if something doesn’t work.”

In addition, an array of school district and college partnerships, such as those found at Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Schools and Newark (N.J.) Public Schools, are encouraging more students to take the road to higher education.

Meanwhile, the most important key for districts is to adopt an attitude of seeing every student as college material, according to Rick Dalton, president and CEO of College for Every Student, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Cornwall, Vt. Here are five innovative programs that help students who wouldn’t normally even consider college to apply and attend.

Demanding Excellence

The target at the Brownsville (Texas) Independent School District is to make every student college ready by removing any obstacles that might stand in the way. That’s why the district implemented dual enrollment classes in the fall of 2008, in which students earn up to 45 college credit hours for the same classes that earn them their high school diplomas. Brownsville Early College High School will offer classes to its students at the University of Brownsville campus for their junior and senior years, so they can earn credits for both on the district’s dime.

“The key is having a good curriculum that is both vertically and horizontally aligned,” assures Salvador Cavazos, assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction. Brownsville pays the SAT testing fees for students in the district who can’t afford them, regardless of whether they are in the Early College program.

As a result of this “everyone can learn” philosophy, Brownsville’s Hispanic students showed greater improvement than their peers in similar Texas districts in reading and math at all grade levels over a three-year period, according to the measurements that won the district the 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education. From 2004 to 2007, the district surpassed the state average in raising the percentage of Hispanic and low-income students who achieved math proficiency at all grade levels and achieved reading proficiency in elementary and high school.

Smaller Schools

Crater High School in the Central Point (Ore.) School District 6, had an alarmingly low number of students pursuing college a few years ago.

Even with funds available from the district’s Crater Foundation—and a guarantee that all who asked would receive—less than 50 percent of seniors requested scholarship assistance in the spring of 2007. “We were certainly not a failing high school in the eyes of our community or the Oregon Department of Education, but the number of kids pursuing college was alarming,” says Samantha Steele, director of education. “In our economy today, what it takes to earn a living wage requires some level of postsecondary training.”

Administrators realized that giving individual attention to 1,500 teenagers in one high school was impossible. So they looked to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s small-school grant to break their population into four autonomous high schools on a shared campus, which occurred in the 2007-2008 school year.

The four high schools provide a more personalized approach to teaching, with every student connected to at least one staff member with whom he or she meets on a regular basis. Courses are integrated, so students and teachers spend more face time with each other.

“Students who wanted to go to college, didn’t believe it was possible, hadn’t considered it, began to consider it,” Steele says.

In 2005-2006, only 44 percent of Crater High’s students met the statewide assessment for reading. After one year of the small school environment, that percentage rose to 70 percent. Not coincidentally, the request for scholarship assistance also shot up to more than 70 percent of the graduating class.


Seeking Out Parents

The rewards for filling out a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) at Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools are impressive: Owens Community College will upgrade any student eligible for a federal Pell Grant of any amount to a full scholarship. The University of Toledo extends the same offer for its four-year program to students who have at least a 3.0 grade point average.

Superintendent John Foley refuses to squander such educational riches. He’s using his regular public relations budget and going directly to the parents of middle schoolers and underclassmen with a targeted “fill out the FAFSA” campaign. “It’s hard to get your GPA up your senior year if it’s below a 3.0,” he says. “Our community needs to know college is a promise we can keep so that students take the appropriate courses and parents can steer their children in the right direction.”

This spring, he’s considering direct mail, along with invitations to parents to accompany their students on campus visits that the district sponsors. Much of TPS’s public relations efforts will be aimed at the FAFSA rewards, which gives Foley a budget to work with without dedicating an amount specifically to this agenda. Part of that department’s budget will go toward printing educational brochures for parents who didn’t attend the college application process.

Foley estimates that 400 students, out of about 1,000 to 1,200 graduates, will be eligible this year for the University of Toledo scholarships and another 800 will qualify for the Owens scholarships. When it comes to reaching this audience, Foley sees no reason why the school can’t have a 100 percent success rate. “Not every student wants to go to college. But we want to make sure that kids will have the opportunity,” he says.


Using Mentors

About 10 years ago, students at Azusa Pacific University decided as part of a class project to sponsor a fourth-grade class at a nearby elementary school. The idea was merely to spend one hour a week for 16 weeks helping with homework, playing games, and just being buddies.

Flash forward to 2009, and the College Headed and Mighty Proud (CHAMP) program at the Azusa (Calif.) Unified School District in the greater Los Angeles area has grown to eight elementary schools participating in a formalized mentoring program.

"They were so engaged, you could hear a pin drop-and this was a whole class of kids." -Alice Farling, senior consultant to Fairfax County Public Schools

This generation of fourth-graders and their college student mentors are still buddies, but the focus is on the older students firing up the younger ones to attend college themselves someday. The dichotomy is obvious: The Azusa district’s population is nearly 70 percent Hispanic and many are low-income, while most of the mentors are from outside the region and from upper middle-class backgrounds. Yet the sessions are not only full of giggles but of encouragement of specific academic paths the children should start considering to reach their goals.

The program culminates in a special college day during which the children eat lunch and tour Azusa Pacific, then walk across a stage in front of their parents to receive a certificate proclaiming them future doctors, firefighters, accountants—whatever careers they have their hearts set on. “We don’t tell them to go to Azusa Pacific, but rather not to shut off the opportunity to go to college,” says Cynthia Cervantes McGuire, the Azusa district’s superintendent. “And the ceremony celebration is a wonderful opportunity to encourage the parents. They’re a captive audience for us to give information on how to fulfill a dream.”

However, the true magic lies in the age gap between the paired friends. To fourth-graders, the college crowd doesn’t seem as unapproachable or intimidating as adults, McGuire observes, and they bring a lot of energy. “There’s nothing more important than having a connection to somebody—someone paying attention to you,” she notes.


Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools sends more than 90 percent of its graduating seniors to college. As many educators know, boosting that last 10 percent can be the most difficult, since it requires reaching those students who actively resist suggestions of higher education.

But now, administrators are requiring all Fairfax students to develop a virtual roadmap for their educational careers. Through Naviance, a company known for its career-based software programs, all students are learning to set personal goals for academic achievements, life skills such as time management, and community service during their high school careers. “We want them to think about who they are, what their interests are, their strengths and the kind of life they want to live,” says Alice Farling, a senior consultant to the district.

Students will use this plan over the next three years to detail and record their steps to reach these goals and to journal the journey. Parents and teachers are given the passwords so they stay up-todate with their students’ progress. During their senior year, graduates will have a portfolio of work available to attach to college and scholarship applications.

Farling already sees more subtle benefits. In just the first semester, teachers and students have closer relationships because the assignment prompts a better understanding of goals and interests. Counselors at the career centers inside each high school plan to use the tool to match portfolios with potential colleges and to prepare occupation background materials during chat sessions with the students.

Students so far don’t mind the additional work. “They’re at the perfect age to like finding out about themselves,” Farling says. “I observed a session the other day when kids were evaluating their strengths and starting to type in their goals. They were so engaged, you could hear a pin drop—and this was a whole class of kids.”

Making Progress?

Because many of these college-bound programs throughout the country are only a few years old, the jury is still out on whether they ultimately will make a difference in college attendance, says Denver Scholarship Foundation’s Nate Easley. But there’s no doubt in his mind they’re having regional impacts today.

“It’s not a matter of this generation being less interested,” he says. “It’s more about the high correlation between poverty and whether your parents have a college degree that influences these decisions. So the real question is, have we done what we need to do in our education system to inspire that interest?”

To read more about Denver Public Schools' program please visit:

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.