Graduates of one of the best known charter school networks in the nation experience significant financial and other hurdles while in college, including difficulties getting work-study jobs and internships related to their career aspirations, according to a recent survey.
Conducted by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school organization in 2016, the survey attempted to get a sense of the challenges facing college-going alumni of KIPP’s 200 schools in 20 states plus Washington D.C. Twenty-five of those schools are in California. KIPP surveyed its approximately 10,000 alumni currently in colleges throughout the United States and received responses from 2,969 of them.
KIPP executive director Richard Barth said the reason KIPP conducted the study was to “better understand the hurdles” KIPP graduates face, and “to raise public awareness about the challenges first-generation and low-income students experience in college.”
The hardships underscore that though college-bound students may be academically ready for higher education, the challenges they face after high school could undermine or even imperil their ability to graduate from college. It also raises larger questions about the kinds of support students will need in college in order to succeed.
Many students reported having difficulties coming up with money to pay for food, and having to forego meals in order to cover their college expenses.
One of those students was Maritza Avila, who attended a KIPP middle school in Los Angeles. When she moved off the University of California Berkeley campus last year to live with friends, one challenge she wasn’t prepared for was running out of food.
“A lot of people say living in an apartment is fun and what not, but they don’t really tell you how difficult it is when it comes to food, how expensive it is, especially here in the Bay Area,” Avila, a junior and the first her in family to attend college, said. “Apartments are really expensive, so just adding on food is also a burden. The first month or two were really difficult for me.”
Because Avila was eligible for federal work-study employment, she was able to qualify for Cal Fresh, the state’s food stamp program and the roughly $190 in assistance that came with it. But it took months for her to learn about it.
The KIPP survey showed that her experience was by no means unique.
Among the survey’s findings:
- Nearly 60 percent of KIPP alumni said they worry about running out of food before they can afford to buy more. Forty-three percent said they missed meals to pay for books, fees and other college expenses;
- Less than 30 percent of KIPP students in college who had jobs or internships were able to find ones that were related to their career goals;
- Just over 40 percent of students who were working couldn’t find work-study jobs even though they were eligible to receive them;
- Nearly 25 percent of students send money back home to support their families.
KIPP already dedicates considerable resources to help its graduates succeed in college through a program called “KIPP Through College.” Those services include providing students with college readiness courses while they’re in high school, which cover issues such as filling out financial aid forms, identifying colleges that are the best fit, and becoming more familiar with the logistical aspects of transitioning from high school to a place of higher learning.
Nationwide, KIPP schools are clustered into 31 regional organizations, each of which has formed its own nonprofit organization. Each region tailors the services it provides to the conditions in the parts of the state where they are located.
In the Bay Area, where 11 KIPP schools enroll about 4,600 K-12 students, high school students are briefed on the California DREAM Act for undocumented students, for example. The DREAM Act allows undocumented students to apply for state financial aid and to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges. David Ling, managing director of student services for KIPP Bay Area Schools, said that students in 11th and 12th grade spend about an hour a day in these courses.
To address financial emergencies like the kind that lead to a lack of food, KIPP Bay Area encourages families to do whatever they can to open college savings plans known as 529s that allow them to put money away for college with some tax incentives.
In addition, they’re encouraged to take college savings workshops through the charter network. “Probably more important is the messaging of why we should save,” Ling said. “It’s getting into that habit as a family to put a little bit aside for college.” More than 80 percent of KIPP’s California students qualify for free or reduced-price federal meal subsidies.
Perhaps the most significant support that KIPP provides is that it pairs each of its graduates with a college adviser. These are paid staffers that mentor KIPP alumni while they are in college. In the Bay Area, a staff of eight advisers each oversee 140 to 170 students who are at various stages of their college careers, Ling said.
A critical time period is getting students prepared after they are accepted to a college, but before they actually enroll. Ling said advisers discuss the nitty-gritty of what it takes to succeed in college.
Advisers meet with students in person before college starts and then communicate weekly or monthly by text, email and social media throughout their first quarter or semester in college.
After the first quarter or semester, the advisers meet again with the students they are counseling, going over their grades and other early indicators of whether they are managing the college experience successfully. Ling said the advisers also follow up on student life issues, asking those students living on campus about the dorm environment, whether the students have joined any clubs.
By students’ third and fourth years, advisers conduct mock job interviews, help students with their résumés and creating LinkedIn profiles, and other ingredients to succeed in the workforce. KIPP Bay Area helps by keeping a running tally of available internships and other job opportunities.
Advisers also draw students’ attention to new financial aid or other state or federal programs when they become available. Just last month, KIPP Bay Area circulated a notice to its alumni in college that encouraged them to sign up for the Cal Fresh program UC Berkeley’s Avila benefited from last year.
In addition, KIPP encourages its students to attend one of the 80 colleges with which it has partnerships – arrangements the charter network says allows its mentors or students to reach out to a designated staffer in the college’s administration. The approach allows KIPP to more directly target its college-enrolled students – something that’s easier to do when several dozen or more are concentrated on a few campuses. That is the case with California public universities. According to Ling, there are 120 KIPP students at San Jose State University, 91 at San Francisco State University, and about 40 each at the Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz campuses of UC – a few of the 14 partner colleges in California.
Some experts say that while schools like KIPP should be commended for the extensive services they provide their students in college, the onus should be on the colleges themselves to provide low-income students with the supports they need to succeed academically.
“The institution has a responsibility to make sure their faculty and staff are trained to provide that intensive mentoring for their students,” said Buffy Smith, a sociology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a leading proponent of the concept called “hidden curriculum” – which refers to multiple nonacademic skills and behaviors students need to succeed.
The KIPP survey also identified the difficulties students have finding the right kind of internships. That can be crucial to students being able to continue on the career paths they have chosen, said William Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Colleges should do a better job of stressing the importance of internships much earlier in a student’s college career, he said. Check-ins from advisers like the ones at KIPP are “OK, but they don’t substitute” for what colleges should be doing, Tierney said.
Tierney worries that many low-income students, or those who are the first in their families to go to college, may not realize that securing a good job after college requires putting in the time to find an internship by the spring of their freshman year – or earlier.
“What too often happens is that they end up going back to where they’re from, and they’ll find a job bagging groceries at Ralph’s. And in one sense, that’s good, because it pays the bills,” he said. “But it’s not an internship. It’s not something that you put on your résumé that you worked in an engineering firm or a law firm downtown.”
William Moses, managing director of the education program at The Kresge Foundation, a Detroit-based foundation that funds a range of college-support programs in California and elsewhere, said that if he were advising a high school on how to help its graduates that make it to college, “I would look for nonprofit partners that specialize in the college-age population, and I would be thinking about ways in which I could partner with them rather than trying to reinvent the wheel on limited resources.”
He pointed to organizations like Single Stop, which connects individuals, including college students, with social benefits for which they may be eligible and Year Up, which offers high school graduates without college degrees year-long training and paid internships so that they can later enter the workforce.
“It’s not that the nonprofits that work in the postsecondary realm have more resources, it’s that they have perfected a model that may be even more effective than really good mentoring or really good advising,” Moses said.
In general, there’s agreement that much more needs to be done to help students – especially those who are first in their families to go to college – traverse a range of obstacles and acquire the know-how that goes beyond just doing well in classrooms or lecture halls.
“It is incumbent on all of us – K-12 educators, college and university administrators, policymakers and entrepreneurs – to innovate and to create better pathways to opportunity,” said KIPP’s Barth.