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Match Matters in Higher Education

This week's guest blog features Rich Buery, KIPP's chief of policy and public affairs. In this role, Rich leads efforts to grow the KIPP network and speaks for KIPP on policy issues. He previously served as deputy mayor in New York City under Bill de Blasio, where he led key initiatives like Pre-K for All. This week, Rich will write about KIPP's work on higher education and other critical policy issues.

A recent New York Times editorial provocatively opined that "College May Not Be Worth It Anymore." The writer, Ellen Ruppel Shell, noted that college dropouts only slightly out-earn high school graduates (and that's before accounting for student debt), and that low-income students are more likely to drop out than wealthier students. Citing a study by economists Tim Bartik and Brad Hershbein, she writes that "individuals from poorer backgrounds may be encountering a glass ceiling that even a bachelor's degree does not break."

Hers is one of a growing number of voices questioning the benefits of college in a world of escalating educational costs and crushing student debt—especially for students from low-income families. My colleague, KIPP CEO Richard Barth, recently considered these questions in a Forbes op-ed declaring that "the debate about college shouldn't be a debate at all." Rather than considering college as an either-or proposition, Richard calls for an education system in which all young people are prepared to access a wide range of opportunities—both college and technical education. Richard argues that a college degree remains the "strongest stepping stone to economic self-sufficiency," especially for students from low-income families.

It is certainly true that attending college, accumulating debt, and dropping out without completing a degree does not put students from low-income families on the path to future success. But that's not a reason to reject college. It's a reason to ensure that students are making the right decisions about where to attend college, that they have the preparation and support they need to graduate, and to work towards making college truly affordable for all. Indeed, Bartik and Hershbein, the authors of the study cited in that Times editorial, conclude that "college still has a good economic return for most Americans, including the poor and other disadvantaged groups," and advocate for policies that increase college attendance.

At KIPP, we understand the impact a college degree can have on a young person's life. We've spent over 20 years helping students from underserved communities in grades PreK-12—most of whom are African American and Latino first-generation college-goers—develop the knowledge and character strengths needed to succeed in college and beyond. And with over 20,000 KIPP alumni currently enrolled in college or pursuing careers, we've learned some lessons about what works when it comes to helping students make it to graduation. Informed by the experience of thousands of KIPP alumni succeeding in college today, we know that college is a truly powerful option for the vast majority of our students.

In today's post I'll discuss one of those lessons: the importance of counseling students to choose the college that's the best match for them.

Here's the reality: Not all colleges and universities are created equal when it comes to providing an environment where all students will thrive, or making sure that African American and Latino students that enroll actually graduate. We want students to be informed about what colleges are most likely to put them on a path to a four-year degree. For example, a 2012 study Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that students from low-income families often "undermatch" when applying to college, and are likely to enroll in less competitive schools than they are qualified to attend. Furthermore, research published this year by Chungseo Kang and Darlene Garcia Torres shows that students who undermatch are less likely to graduate on time than students who attend colleges that match their qualifications.

To counter this phenomenon of undermatching, KIPP Through College (KTC) counselors begin helping high school students navigate the college admissions process in junior year. Our KIPP counselors help students and families understand financial aid packages and procedures. They also provide them with important information, such as data on college selectivity and graduation rates. They encourage students to select schools where they'll have the chance to thrive, feel a sense of belonging, pursue their passion and interests, and find a fulfilling job. We call it "Match Matters." Our counselors then continue to support students once they're in college, as they work through any academic, social, and financial challenges that may come up.

Match mattered for Aaliyah Auguste, a KIPP New Jersey alumna from Newark, NJ. She and her parents had been to college fairs and learned about important metrics like admission and graduation rates. Eventually, Aaliyah focused on a handful of colleges that would be the right fit for her, academically and socially. Ultimately, she was most drawn to Lincoln University, a Historically Black College and University.

"It was the best match for her personality," her father, Haneef Auguste, told us. He explained that Lincoln provided a cultural and social fit for Aaliyah, in addition to academic rigor. Aaliyah thrived on campus, joining clubs, as well as a women's professional organization. Her KTC counselor stayed in touch throughout her time at Lincoln, and connected her with other KIPP alumni there. Aaliyah graduated from Lincoln this spring. Lincoln was the right "match" for Aaliyah. We strive to ensure all students have a similar experience.

This past July, KIPP college counselors shared our Match Matters counseling process with leaders from four public school districts in a special training session in San Antonio, Texas. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, college counselors from KIPP worked alongside their peers from Newark Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education, and Aspire Public Schools to share and learn from one another. They focused on effective strategies to ensure that minority students apply and are accepted to colleges with high graduation rates. Through this partnership, KIPP hopes to help increase the college graduation rate of public school students across cities and regions where these school systems operate.

We envision a day when every high school senior matches to the right college and career for them. But the importance of making the best college match is just one of the lessons we've learned at KIPP.  Tomorrow, I'll discuss three additional lessons: increasing the government's and colleges' data transparency for students and their families; making sufficient financial support available to students; and promoting innovation in higher education.                       

Rich Buery

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