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KIPP Alumni Are Thriving at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Here's Why

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Low-income minority students who are the first in their family to go to college face a lot of hurdles, hurdles that can all too easily derail their graduation.

Many of those obstacles are financial. But besides removing financial barriers, some research suggests that one key to a student's success—but a far less concrete issue—is whether students feel a sense of belonging in their new university community.

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This feeling contributes to students' happiness and their grades.

So when it comes to having a healthy sense of belonging at college, alumni of KIPP charter schools who attend historically black colleges and universities are significantly more likely to report feelings of belonging than their counterparts at other colleges. They are also more likely to seek out academic supports at their HBCUs than their peers not attending HBCUs.

That's according to a survey conducted by the KIPP Foundation of 3,000 KIPP alumni from 19 states. The findings have implications for other charter schools and networks that are actively working to increase college persistence rates among their alumni.

Of former KIPP students attending HBCUS, 72 percent reported feeling like they belong at their school, compared to 61 percent in regular colleges. Students attending HBCUs were also more likely to report having a mentor (68 percent to 56 percent) and meet with an academic adviser more than once (72 percent to 56 percent).

Additionally, seeing other KIPP alumni on campus also boosted students' sense of belonging and mental health and their chances that they'd have a mentor or meet with an academic adviser.

It's clear, a report on the survey results says, that helping alumni connect with one another is an important step toward helping support students once they're in college. The report also says that KIPP plans to work with HBCUs to identify replicable steps that other universities can take to increase students' sense of belonging.

A Growing Focus on College Persistence

Getting low-income students into college has long been the singular focus of many high-profile charter school networks.

When it comes to graduating from college, the odds are stacked against low-income students, especially those who are the first in their families to pursue higher education: just 11 percent graduate in six years, according to the Pell Institute, a research group that focuses on access to higher education.

Many "no-excuse" college-prep networks hang college pennants in hallways and name classrooms after Ivy League universities and big state schools. They also emphasize test-prep and strict codes of behavior.

But more and more these charter networks, including KIPP, are acknowledging that boosting college acceptance rates is only half the battle and are focusing more on supporting their former students through college. 

To improve college persistence rates, some networks—I've highlighted a few in New Orleans in previous reporting—are focusing more on teaching nonacademic skills, such as perseverance, and providing intensive counseling in high school and beyond.

And as I mentioned at the top of this story, financial barriers remain a very real issue for low-income, first-generation college goers, even when they receive financial aid and scholarships.

An earlier KIPP survey of its alumni found that 25 percent of its former students in college are helping support other family members financially while they attend college. Forty percent of the network's alumni skip meals in order to afford other education expenses.

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Photo: Elizabeth Valerio, a KIPP assistant principal, visits a 6th grade math class at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, N.J in 2015. —Mark Abramson for Education Week

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