Closing the Gap: College Access to College Success

For the past several decades, our K-12 public schools have rightfully focused on equalizing access to a high-quality education between students from low-income backgrounds, including students of color, and their higher-income peers. These efforts have been paying off. High performing charter public school networks across the country have been particularly successful at increasing high school graduation and college acceptance rates for underserved low-income students and students of color across the country.

From 1976 to 2013, the percentage of American college students who are Hispanic rose from 4 percent to 16 percent, and those who are African American rose from 10 to 15 percent. These figures are a small step in the right direction, but they hide the reality that far too many students are struggling in college and failing to earn a degree.

While more than two-thirds of public colleges and universities have increased graduation rates over the last decade, the graduation gap between students of color and their white peers grew by 19 percent. Students from low-income backgrounds in particular are being left behind at incredible rates. According to a 2013 report from the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute, only 9 percent of people from the lowest income bracket earned at least a bachelor's degree by the time they turned 24 - compared to 77 percent of their peers from families in the top income quartile.

It is not enough for colleges and universities to enroll increasing numbers of students of color and low-income students; they need to ensure students graduate as well.

There's much we can learn from the colleges and universities, and their K-12 partners, that have already embarked on this hard, innovative work to ensure all of their students graduate. But first, we must be able to identify these top performers.

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a network of charter schools that provides a college prep education to 12,500 middle and high school students in Los Angeles's most underserved communities, has released a new ranking system that highlights colleges with the highest graduation rates for underrepresented students of color. The ranking, called the Power 150, is a powerful tool to help students, families, educators, and college counselors better identify the colleges and universities that fit their unique needs, and that set historically underserved students up for academic and life success.

The Power 150 analyzed and ranked more than 4,000 colleges and universities across the nation using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The top five schools with minority graduation rates of 75 percent or higher are Ripon College, Yale University, Scripps College, Harvard University and Flagler College - St. Augustine. Other high-ranking colleges on the Power 150 include Princeton University, Vassar College, Middlebury College, Washington University and Pomona College.

Their success is not a coincidence. Many on the Power 150 offer specific programming to ensure underrepresented students thrive and graduate from college, including mentoring support, special orientation programs for first generation college students, and generous financial aid to help ensure student success. At Vassar College, the board of trustees and staff leadership has made it a priority to recruit, enroll, and graduate underrepresented students. Their Transitions program, a pre-Orientation program created with the needs of first-generation, low-income, and/or undocumented college students in mind, familiarizes students with campus resources available to them.

Meanwhile, schools that aren't among the nation's traditional elite are also making major strides in serving under-represented students. For instance, Georgia State University has been recognized as the fourth-most innovative university in the country by U.S. News & World Report. One big reason: Georgia State has used innovative methods, such as harnessing big data to improve academic advising, to completely eliminate the gap in graduation rates between white and black students. Georgia State now awards more bachelor's degrees to African-American students than any other university in the country.

Public charter school networks like Alliance College-Ready Public Schools are preparing all students for the rigors of higher education. But that work will only be completed - and the promises of a better life fulfilled - when charter school graduates succeed in college. As forward-thinking colleges and universities figure out how to close the gap between college access and college success for underrepresented students of color, more institutions should take a look at what's making their success possible and emulate these practices on their own campuses.