Colleges and Universities

Staying In

June 12, 2018  • Caroline Broder

Getting in to college is hard. But creating the conditions that let students finish is even harder. The Institute’s College Excellence Program shows students who never thought higher education was for them what they are capable of—and shows colleges of all kinds how to keep them.

Life wasn’t going exactly as Sam Khalid had planned after he graduated from high school. Living in an apartment, he and his wife were barely eking out a living. He worked long hours in retail. She worked as a nurse’s aide. Bills were piling up. The idea of a college education seemed distant, if not impossible. “Somewhere along life’s highway, I took the wrong exit,” he says. “The more I tried to get out of it, the deeper I got lost.”

Then the news hit that his wife was pregnant with twins. They already could scarcely afford rent. The electric company cut off their power. “I knew that if I did not fight now in this difficult time, I would spend the rest of my life fighting,” he recalls.

So Khalid decided to take a leap: he quit his job and enrolled full-time at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan. From a young age, he always wanted to be a doctor, so he decided to pursue an associate of science degree.

He aced his classes, but it wasn’t easy. His wife had to stop working for health reasons. One of his twin daughters was born with a medical condition that required her to remain in the hospital for months. At night, he studied by the neon lights of her hospital room.

He kept working. Not just for himself but for others. He started the school’s first biology club, served in the honors society, and spent more than 50 hours tutoring children of incarcerated parents.

People noticed Khalid’s hard work and success. The Siemens Foundation, working in partnership with the Institute’s College Excellence Program, named him a Siemens Technical Scholar and awarded him a $3,500 scholarship. The Siemens program is designed to recognize an exceptional group of diverse students from across the country who exemplify what can be accomplished by those who complete an excellent technical program in a science-related field. For Khalid, this meant graduating from Mott with honors in 2016 and landing a good job in medical transcription.

At a time when the opportunity to move into the middle class is in question, Khalid’s story is an example of the role colleges can play in delivering the kind of skills needed to develop talent from every neighborhood—talent our nation and employers desperately need. But some colleges accomplish those things more often than others.

College Excellence: What It Means at the Institute

This is where the Institute’s College Excellence Program comes in. Founded in 2010, the program is focused on a simple idea: the practices, policies, and leadership at colleges matter deeply to students’ success—both while they are in college and after they graduate. And while many institutions of higher learning are working hard to improve student success, most could do better.

Since its inception, the College Excellence Program has grown from a single project—the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which former President Barack Obama dubbed the “Oscars” for community colleges—to a multifaceted set of more than ten initiatives designed to influence college and university practice across the United States. Perhaps the most prominent is the American Talent Initiative, a collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit dedicated to higher education. It has built a coalition of 100 top colleges and universities—including the entire Ivy League—dedicated to adding 50,000 to the number of lower-income students enrolled (see “Personal Leadership,” page 52). Another is the Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, an intensive yearlong fellowship for 40 aspiring community college leaders; after just two years, the fellowship has attracted 22 community college presidents at institutions that collectively educate more than 300,000 students. And a third is Tackling Transfer, a multistate project designed to dramatically improve outcomes for the roughly 40 percent of undergraduate students who complete college at a different school from where they started—students who on average lose 43 percent of all the course credits they have earned every time they transfer schools.

Better Access Isn’t Enough

Over the past half century, the United States has dramatically increased access to higher education, largely through the expansion of community colleges and regional public universities. The good news? Two out of every three high school graduates in America attend college, more than just about anywhere else in the world.

But here’s the rub. A college’s work isn’t done when a student enrolls. Research shows that just over half of all college students graduate and that rates are much lower for the growing number of low-income students and students of color in US schools. Moreover, evidence strongly suggests that many college graduates lack some of the critical thinking, communications, and other skills needed to enjoy fulfilling careers and become lifelong learners. In the end, students don’t go to college just to learn or just to complete a degree. Those things matter. But, like Sam Khalid, they also want a better life after they graduate.

The Aspen College Excellence Program is focused on helping colleges deliver what students, communities, and the country need. Community colleges—including winners of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence—show the way for other schools to ensure that many more students graduate and that degree programs are aligned with what comes next in students’ lives. The highly selective colleges in the American Talent Initiative show other top colleges how they can deliver stronger educational quality by becoming more socioeconomically diverse—specifically by activating and including talented students from every community.

The lessons garnered from the Institute’s research at high-performing institutions form the basis of its higher-education change agenda. The program teaches aspiring college presidents in its fellowship the practices of prizewinning community colleges. It also incorporates that learning into professional-development programs run by others—from doctoral programs in college leadership at North Carolina State University to continuing education programs at the American Association of Community Colleges. It gathers the presidents of colleges in the American Talent Initiative as well as their leadership teams to exchange specific ideas about how they reach the initiative’s 50,000-by-2025 student goal. Based on deep research into highly effective transfer practices nationally, College Excellence has put together multi-day workshops for leadership teams from more than 50 community colleges and universities in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Khalid’s story exemplifies what an excellent college education can deliver. After some time spent working in medical transcription, Khalid still wanted to chase his dream of becoming a doctor. He applied to the University of Michigan, an American Talent Initiative member institution, where he received a full ride and completed his pre-med courses. In August, he will attend medical school at the American University of Antigua, where he plans to pursue internal medicine.

Khalid gets emotional when he thinks about all he has accomplished. He thinks about how his family prayed for him and how his professors supported him. It brings him to tears. His experience in community college built the confidence he needed to succeed beyond graduation. Now he wants to give back.

“I know I can do anything in the world if I want it bad enough,” he says.