Help students succeed before they get to college

Admitting students with little chance to graduate helps no one; tying UW System funding to graduation rates would force change

By IKE BRANNON and MIKE NICHOLS | March 1, 2017

The University of Wisconsin System is supposed to be one of the state’s most effective paths to helping children of lower- and working-class households join the middle class. Unfortunately, it’s not working out that way.

Less than two-thirds of students who started in the fall of 2006 graduated from any UW school within six years, and graduation rates for Wisconsin’s African-American community are particularly troubling.

Nearly one-third of all African-American freshmen at UW schools do not return for a second year, and at UW-Milwaukee only one in five African-American students who enroll full time graduate from that school in six years, according to a report released Wednesday by The Education Trust and reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

As legislators prepare for budget deliberations, we support efforts that would make universities more accountable by tying a portion of their state aid to graduation rates as well as other metrics. A September 2016 report, “Back to the Drawing Board,” by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute made just such a recommendation.

The natural argument against performance-based funding is that the universities serving the most lower-income students, such as UWM, are the ones with the worst graduation numbers. Only 14% of UWM freshmen graduate from the school in four years.

However, requiring colleges to devote substantial resources to efforts to overcome problems created by high schools they have no control over is counterproductive. The students deserve more help when and where it matters, earlier in their lives or in different sorts of schools. A funding stream tied to graduation rates would help force that to happen.

Admitting a student with little or no chance to graduate on time does a disservice to the student as well as his or her classmates. There are better ways to help such students. Graduating high-schoolers who aspire to attend college but find themselves unprepared at the end of their high school years should be steered toward our community colleges, which can do a better job of remedial education. 

More important, support for kids with the ability to excel needs to start much earlier than age 17 or 18 so that all students who aspire to a four-year degree have that opportunity.

One program with a proven record is Pathways Milwaukee, a holistic enrichment program for underserved minority and first-generation college prospects that both engages parents and offers students a unique opportunity to prepare for and understand the rigors of college.

Pathways reaches out to students as early as fifth grade.

“We actually give our partner schools very loose (eligibility) criteria: low income, first generation (college attendance), minimum C average and minimum behavioral issues,” Pathways founder and executive director Milton Cockroft told WPRI in a story by Betsy Thatcher. These are “mid-range” kids, he says, neither top-performing nor struggling at home and in the classroom.

“It’s those students in the middle that are always kind of forgotten and the ones that just need that extra push and encouragement to say, ‘Yes, I can do this; I can go on to college.’ ”

Bryan Morales was born in Mexico and immigrated with his parents to the United States as a child. “Pathways just showed me how to talk to people, give presentations, be formal, professional and adapt to the people I am talking to,” says Bryan, a high school junior taking advanced placement courses in engineering and business at Carmen Schools of Science and Technology Northwest Campus.

Like 95 percent of students who stay in Pathways through high school graduation, Bryan likely will be the first in his family to attend college. And, if he is like earlier participants, he will not need remedial education.

Less than 10 years old, Pathways has more than 350 students from 20 partner schools. The program’s first three cohorts, totaling 28 students, are currently in colleges and universities around the country. Of the first two cohorts, not one student had to take remedial courses in college, Cockroft says.

The program does, of course, cost money. With a budget of around $700,000, it is funded primarily by foundations and also receives funding from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“I always thought that when you start working with students, particularly from an academic level, if you start in high school trying to prepare them, you’re too late,” Cockroft says.

Trying to catch up in college is even less likely, which is why money needs to be spent more wisely at all levels of our education system.

Ike Brannon is president of Capital Policy Analytics. Mike Nichols is WPRI president.