“You can move the needle a little with these one-off programs,” said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But to actually graduate a lot of first-generation students, you need to move the needle a lot.”
Organizations like the 30-year-old Posse Foundation have worked to address this for years. Like SEO Scholars, the Posse Foundation has a 90 percent graduation rate. But to get there, it too, takes the long view, helping hundreds of high school seniors a year secure scholarships, offering them months of college-readiness workshops and facilitating faculty advisory programs once they are on campus, as well as peer mentoring groups and tutoring, until the end of their sophomore year, a time when national dropout rates for low-income students begin to fall.
The 16-year-old New York-based Opportunity Network, which boasts a 93 percent six-year graduation rate for its now 1,000 fellows, is also comprehensive and long-term. It engages students early in high school with a strong academic enrichment program, rigorous SAT prep and college essay writing workshops, transition-to-college boot camps, and campus advisory support.
And Yonkers Partners in Education, a Westchester County-based college prep program founded in 2007, enrolls 600 of its 1,200 students in a six-year program that starts in the ninth grade and follows students until the end of their sophomore year of college. The program also offers a strong academic component, and its first class of college-bound students, who are now in their third year of college, has a 93 percent retention rate.
Samuel Wallis, the program’s executive director said that if you want to really help students get through college, “The earlier you start, the better.”
Educators at SEO Scholars also place a high premium on rectifying the kind of socioemotional pitfalls that trip up so many first-generation college students.
A team of counselors works around the clock, taking calls from frazzled students — one has gotten a disappointing grade on a midterm, another is having trouble with a roommate. Some SEO students just need to talk with someone who knows how hard they studied for a really challenging calculus exam, or they need an adult who can advocate for them because someone in the bursar’s office cannot find their financial aid paperwork.
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