How Technology Is Improving College Success Rates and Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

2015-09-18-1442536604-5196058-LynneMartinHeadshot2015.jpg By Lynne Martin, Executive Director,
Students Rising Above

Isn't it great when technology works out even better than expected?

That's exactly our experience at Students Rising Above in San Francisco, where we have been trying to figure out a way to provide more help and guidance to low-income, first-generation college students.

As it turned out, applying technology to our model, which was born in the analog world, was the answer. In the process, we believe we have created a powerful new platform to meet the needs of students who lack the resources and guidance to make it into and through college and into the workforce.

By adapting our model to the digital age, we're now serving five times the number of students we were when our award-winning program was delivered solely face-to-face. The result is that by using technology, we're accelerating and expanding our mission - which is to break the cycle of poverty through educational opportunity.

Here's the story of what happened. Our hope is that it will inspire your organization to innovate to serve others.

The Challenge
Since its founding 17 years ago, Students Rising Above (SRA) has believed that low-income youth should have an opportunity to achieve prosperity through education and hard work, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Our program identifies students of extraordinary character in their junior year of high school, and we make a five-year commitment to help them along the critical pathway from high school, to and through college, and into the workforce. These are students who are rising above unimaginable family and economic hardships and who, without positive intervention, would be most at risk of not realizing their full potential.

Today, our program is one of the most successful of its kind in the United States. Ninety percent of SRA students complete bachelor's degrees in 4.5 years. Eighty-seven percent of SRA graduates are in career-ladder jobs or attending graduate school within 12 months of college graduation. We have sent students to elite universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT and others, as well as top-tier public universities across California and the nation. We are helping these students overcome the odds and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Our program has succeeded because it's comprehensive. We help students with the college selection and admission process, which includes finding, applying for and maintaining financial aid. As important, we provide ongoing, one-on-one mentoring throughout a student's college experience and help them with the challenges of breaking away from a troubled life at home. Then we provide job preparation and counseling to help our graduates find meaningful career jobs in their communities.

The problem has been that for as many students as we serve through our existing program, there are hundreds we can't serve. For example, in 2015 more than 700 Bay Area students applied to our program, but only 111 were selected. It has been disheartening.

Technology Solves A Critical Need
Inspired by the San Francisco-Bay Area's culture of innovation, we challenged ourselves to see how we might apply technology to scale our program, increase student engagement, and maximize our overall program effectiveness.

We realized quickly that we had an advantage because our students are so comfortable with technology. Our students are Gen Z'ers - the most connected, educated and sophisticated generation ever. However, we had to keep in mind that many of our students don't have the same advantages that their affluent peers take for granted, such as electricity, a computer or even a mobile phone.

The result of all of our hard work was the SRA College2Careers Hub (SRA Hub).

The SRA Hub is the first online service to provide free, real-time, professional advising to thousands of low-income high school students who are navigating the challenges of getting into college and into meaningful career jobs. The SRA Hub enables us to economically scale our program by making available online the key elements of our traditional program, thus giving more students an opportunity to succeed.

Rapid Uptake By Students
Very quickly, the results have been dramatic.

Since its launch, the SRA Hub has helped more than 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. A dozen Bay Area high schools, all with limited college counseling services, are using the SRA Hub this fall to offer college counseling.

Our ability to offer this program to people not only in the Bay Area but also across the country is critical because many school districts simply don't have the resources they need to support aspiring students today. In California, for example, the average student-to-high school college counselor ratio is 800 to 1.

How It Works
Students log onto the SRA Hub to access webinars, important college resources, the online student community, and website links. Within 24 hours, they receive personalized responses to their questions from SRA's professional online college advisors.

Students can attend live webinars and ask advisors questions in real time, or view recorded webinars with subsequent online assessments. There is a library of articles and videos on college admissions, financial aid, transferring from a two-year to four-year university, and career development.

Students can also share information via an interactive discussion board, communicate with college admission reps, receive valuable information about colleges, and access job information as they prepare to transition into the workforce.

Welcome Surprises
Early feedback shows that students are embracing the online interaction more than anticipated. Surprisingly, students who were quiet in the classroom were often loud online. They enjoy the perceived sense of anonymity in posting questions and comments. As one student commented, "I loved the community on the SRA Hub. I felt that everyone's voice was equal, and it was my safe place for any bumps I encountered."

The SRA Hub is currently being integrated into 11th and 12th grade curricula with our participating schools. Teachers and counselors have quickly realized the value in having a partner to help fulfill their mission. They are increasingly referring student-specific questions to the online SRA Advisor. In the first year, there were over 1,000 webinar viewers on the SRA Hub.

A Compelling Paradigm Shift
The SRA Hub is showing great promise by providing low-income, first-generation students with personalized support and guidance to get to and through college. Based on our success, we believe we can reach thousands more students who may not otherwise qualify for our intensive one-on-one mentoring program.

The rapid uptake of the SRA Hub continues to surprise us all, and it speaks to a larger need we've clearly tapped. We believe the SRA Hub is a paradigm shift in how these services have been delivered in the past, and how they can be offered going forward.