Ready or Not

For all the talk about whether college is worth its potentially crushing costs, graduating from college remains one of the only vehicles that reliably propels Americans out of poverty. Yet just half of low-income college students earn degrees in six years.

For students from struggling cities, the odds are even steeper. Are they ready for college? And are colleges ready to help them graduate? An ongoing series from Detroit and Newark in the 2019-20 school year examines those questions.

🔗The ‘college completion crisis’ explained

Nationally, 60% of students who enroll at four-year institutions earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The rate is much lower for black students (40%), Hispanic students (55%), and low-income students (49%). In a scene-setter, we outline the many forces that conspire to stop students from completing college, from poor academic preparation to the challenges posed by poverty to colleges’ reluctance or inability to meet the needs of students who start out behind.

"Institutions are great at enrolling students — they’re not great at graduating them."Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust

🔗Meet 5 students as they begin an uncertain journey

Yamin Reddick thought he was ready, even though he graduated from a high school where few graduates complete college. But a summer program at his dream college — Rutgers University-Newark, which has drawn attention for its success in supporting low-income students — took him on an emotional roller coaster that left everything in doubt.

The summer program is designed to acclimate low-income students to college — and to operate like a failure vaccine that builds up students’ immunity through exposure, while they’re surrounded by caring adults and peers from similar backgrounds. It’s one of several strategies that universities are adopting to keep students who might struggle to graduate on track.

"You’re going to be stretched and pulled in ways you’ve never been before."Deborah Walker McCall, Rutgers-Newark dean

Marqell McClendon, Kashia Perkins, Demetrius Robinson, and Joseph Thomas all received enough scholarship and grant money to cover their college costs as they head from their Detroit high schools to three universities in Michigan.

But as the lead-up to the first day of class made clear, there’s much more to college than paying the bills. Like many Detroit students, they will have to navigate patchy academic preparation, culture shock, and their own shaken confidence if they are to stay enrolled and on track.

"Growing up, I’ve never really had that close support system that was with me every step of the way. But at the end of the day, I realize it’s your life and you have to make the best of the moments God blesses you to have."Joseph Thomas

Chalkbeat Detroit partnered with Detroit Public Television to spend the year following the four students. The following video takes a close look at several of the students and the challenges they’ll face in their first year.

🔗As students settle into their first semester, ‘bridge’ programs provide support

Detroit students Marqell, Kashia, and Demetrius each encounter challenges as their college journeys get underway. But people and programs are in place to ease their transition, both during the summer before college and during their first year.

The programs differ in structure, content, and length, but all reflect hope on the part of their colleges that giving first-generation students and underrepresented students extra support will pay off in terms of increased graduation rates.

"We’re Pathways. We’re a little more up in your business. The reason we do this is to set you up for success."Marceil Davis, academic advisor at Michigan State University

🔗For many students, remedial math is a hurdle that can’t be overcome

Remedial classes allow community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions to serve under-prepared students who might otherwise be shut out of higher education. But what was intended as an on-ramp to college too often becomes a parking lot — especially when it comes to math class.

Colleges are increasingly turning to self-paced, online programs in an effort to get more students past the remedial math hurdle. But a look at one program’s impact at two Newark colleges illustrates that there are pitfalls to relying on online programs for students with the most ground to make up.

"What's the point of being in the class with a teacher if you're going to teach yourself?"JaniQua Guiste, Rutgers-Newark student

🔗Voices from the first year

🔗Help or hype: Examining policies aimed at getting students to and through college

There is no shortage of efforts aimed at helping young people succeed in their college journeys.

More and better high school counseling. Grants. Traditional college remedial courses.

We dug into the latest research on these and other efforts. Some have shown solid results, some have fallen short, and the verdict is out on others.

🔗How one Detroit high school walks with graduates as they navigate college

Many high schools invest considerable time and talent in helping students get into college. Aside from some big charter networks and private schools, few maintain close relationships with graduates once they head off to campus.

Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit is an exception. The stand-alone charter school founded by and named for the former NBA star and Detroit native employs an entire team dedicated to college success.

As the school’s alumni success coordinator, Katherine Grow traveled more than 2,600 miles in the fall of 2019 to visit Jalen Rose alumni at colleges and universities across Michigan. For a pair of Detroit students Chalkbeat is following through year one of college, that commitment is making a difference.

"That’s the piece that sustains me, that makes me get up, that makes me drive two hours to a campus. We’re doing the work to create the change that needs to happen."Katherine Grow, Jalen Rose Leadership Academy alumni success coordinator

🔗Detroit grads: Make high school harder to prepare us for college

What do Detroit high school graduates struggle with in college? A new report from a nonprofit organization in Michigan provides some insight, straight from the mouths of students who graduated from several high schools in the city.

The students say they weren’t prepared for the more rigorous coursework. That’s to be expected in a city where most schools are struggling. The students also said they struggled to develop successful academic habits, to deal with financial matters and to adapt to predominantly white campus environments.

🔗Still to come…

Stay tuned for more reporting about the pivotal first year of college, including updates on the students we’re following and explorations of additional practices high schools and colleges are testing out as they try to break longstanding patterns that keep low-income students and students of color from graduating.

This project was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.