Making Sure Every Student Graduates from College

Posted by David Wolf on May 01, 2020 at 6:58 AM

The story of an American education is the extension of formal, directed study over increasing increments of time, as the country and the world developed.  We know that at least some college level education is now a necessity to qualify for most work in America in the 21st century.

But, as amply demonstrated in The Years That Matter Most by Paul Tough, there are many challenges students still face should they qualify for and enter a college or university.

In this post, I wish to share my now ten years of experience working with under represented kids from seriously economically depressed homes to suggest that we know  what needs to be done to help such students overcome the challenges described in Tough’s book, but that we still need much better ways to make sure every student  gets the help they need.

My wife and I live in Santa Rosa, California.  The section of our town known as Roseland is predominantly Hispanic and  lower income.   In 2010, impressed with the remarkable student achievements at a new charter high school, Roseland University Prep, we created a full financial scholarship for its graduates.  We focused on those who were DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and had been accepted to a nearby public institution. This experience has taught us a lot about what needs to be done to make sure every student gets through college in today’s world.

All of our scholarship recipients were the first in their family to experience college.  There were simply no family members to appeal to for advice on academic related matters.  As a result, my wife and I have spent a lot of time in these roles.  The problem is not just a matter of offering advice.  On occasion it was necessary to go to the campus and actively advocate for a student.  One stark example had to do with a required course for which only a limited number of seats were available; our student did not initially make the cut, and thus would have to enroll in an additional semester to complete her BA.  I made the rounds with her and she received a seat and graduated on time (she is now wrapping up her MA—we are so proud of her).

First, let’s admit that for just about everyone, the first weeks in and often  away at college  involves an uncomfortable cultural shift.  It was certainly so for our scholarship students. Unfortunately, the counseling and other services available were usually not up to the task.  Nor were there enough trained assistants who could monitor these new students’ levels of comfort with the way college courses are taught and offer help when it was clearly in order.

All of our scholars had some idea of what major they preferred coming out of high school.  However, most of them changed it during the course of the first semester. It is therefore essential that there be a ready and helpful means to identify and then ease the student to the new, more reasoned course of study.  Then progress has to be monitored, and academic problems (almost all of our students have had difficulties with quantitative reasoning courses) addressed immediately.

Many students, particularly those from places like Roseland, are expected by their families to work once they are out of high school.  For at least the first couple of collegiate years, work and academic success do not go well together.  Even when the student is “in the collegiate groove,” a lot of off-campus employment is going to extend the time necessary to complete a degree, and likely reduce academic performance.

Each student is going to experience a different collegiate reality.  Health issues can arise (we once had to step in and make sure a root canal took place promptly), family problems, boyfriend/girlfriend upsets, transportation difficulties, and on and on.  With each of our scholars we positioned ourselves to be available for whatever came along.  Money solved a few of the problems, but not most of them.  So far, with our type of individualized, almost parental support,  each of our scholars has completed their degree.

The big commitment on our part was to make sure that each student forged the commitment to complete the BA and do so in four years (today, this is no mean achievement).  They had to come to believe that no obstacle was going to prevent them, but they had to work hard and stay at it.

What I have discussed here speaks to supporting student collegiate success at the individual student level--each of our scholars has experienced the university differently, and the support they required at times was unique.

Is it possible to do this at the institutional level—can colleges and universities achieve this for students of all backgrounds? 

Some of the ‘elite’ institutions certainly come close, but they do not serve the vast majority of American students.  In fact, the completion rate for most postsecondary institutions is deplorable, and completing an AA in two years or a BA in four is not typical.  As Thomas Bailey notes in Redesigning America’s Community Colleges there is ample research to show what kinds of instructional design and student services can bring completion rates to much improved levels.  This requires committed leadership, staff training, and adequate funding.  It will be very hard to do, but it is a worthy goal.

And we will not get there in one fell swoop.  Most major systemic change comes in limited increments, actions that are possible in the moment. Individuals can fill some gaps for a few students, as my wife and I have done, but we cannot redesign the system. 

We can also support the kinds of incremental change that clearly enhances the chance for students to enroll and complete higher education. That’s why I serve on the board of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, since eliminating tuition is an important incremental improvement that impacts access and persistence.

But, the task before all of us is to make sure that the resources and support needed to ensure all willing students succeed are also there when they need them. 


David B. Wolf is a member of the Board of Directors for the Campaign for Free College Tuition, Co-Founder and Board Member for the Campaign for College Opportunity and Executive Director Emeritus for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.  He made a long career in higher education, particularly in California community colleges.

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