The Other Half of the Battle: Funders Bet on Push to Keep Low-Income Kids in College

The only thing harder than getting low-income kids to college is keeping them there. But imagine if every school grappling with this challenge could turn to a playbook of best practices? That'd be a good thing. 

Recent estimates suggest that only 43 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and universities will persist long enough to complete their bachelor's degrees. At community colleges, the picture is even more grim, suggesting a degree completion rate of only 31 percent. Look to your right and look to your left, because two of you will be gone.

It's no secret that many of those students who will drop out of community college and universities will likely have modest backgrounds. Low-income students are seven times less likely to complete college degrees than their more affluent counterparts. Which is why, as many readers will know, funders large and small in the higher-ed space have supported an array of programs and supports designed to help low-income students persist through college and complete a postsecondary credential.

Now comes news that five of these funders—USA Funds, Ford, Gates, Kresge, Lumina, and Markle—are backing an effort to disseminate practices that will help retain and graduate more low-income college students. 

So far, they've put $5.7 million behind the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), an effort by eleven major public universities to share best practices and scale interventions that have been effective. Eventually, UIA hopes to develop that playbook we mentioned earlier—a set of tested strategies that will guide institutions of higher education across the country in their efforts to boost college persistence and completion among all students, regardless of background or socioeconomic status.

There's never been a collaboration like this before, which speaks to the rising salience of retention and completion issues. Every big university in the country is struggling in this area. And the money coalescing behind the UIA is testament to how funders increasingly realize that their longstanding quest to get more low-incomes kids onto campus is only half the battle. 

The UIA members are Arizona State University, the Ohio State University, Georgia State University, the University of California at Riverside, Iowa State University, the University of Central Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Kansas, Purdue University, Oregon State University, and the University of Texas.

All of the schools serve large numbers of low-income and first-generation students, and all have developed programs designed to help students succeed. Through this alliance, UIA hopes to share innovations and adapt successful interventions.

Examples of successful initiatives include efforts by Georgia State to use predictive analytics methods to better understand students' academic trajectories. Through these techniques, Georgia State has increased semester-to-semester retention rates by 5 percent and reduced time-to-graduation by half a semester. In raw numbers, this means 1,200 more students stay in school, and the class of 2014 saved $10 million in tuition and fees.

Predictive analytics have helped companies better understand consumer behavior, while political campaigns have used the same methods to predict election results. In this era of big data, why not use the same methods to predict college student success and intervene in such a way to improve retention and completion?

By sharing these and other successful practices, UIA hopes to improve student success rates to the point that, when incoming freshmen look to their right and left, the faces they see will still be there four years later.