The Money—and Research—Behind a New Network to Boost College Completion

 photo:  Lucky Business/shuttterstock

photo:  Lucky Business/shuttterstock

Streams of philanthropic dollars have long gone to expand college access for low-income students and kids of color. In recent years, though, a growing slew of funders have realized that having access to college—and the ability to pay for it—is only part of the challenge; finishing college can be equally daunting for students who are often the first in their families to get a post-secondary education. Too many of these students leave campus with no degree. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year college graduation rate from four-year universities has hovered around 59 percent for the last several years.

We've written about a wide range of initiatives by funders to improve college completion rates. These efforts have generated a lot of understanding about what works and what doesn't to keep at-risk college students moving forward.

Now comes news of a network that aims to bring new resources and urgency to the college completion space. Strong Start to Finish launched earlier this month with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, and the Kresge Foundation. The network, housed as an initiative within the Education Commission of the States, an education policy organization, is based on a simple premise: Successful completion of English and math requirements in the first year of college greatly increases a student's chance of successful completion of a college degree.

College students can get knocked off track, and never recover, for various reasons. But research at multiple colleges and universities has focused attention on what seems to matter most. Studies have found that successful completion of required English and math requirements in the first year of college is associated with higher rates of college retention and graduation. Colorado State University, for example, found that students who complete 30 credit hours, including college-level math and English composition courses, are 67 percent more likely to persist in college and 76 percent more likely to graduate.

Unfortunately, for many students, those first-year English and math requirements can pose huge obstacles to successful college completion. One reason is that many students entering college are unprepared for the demands of postsecondary study. Many U.S. students begin their college careers taking remedial courses in these subjects—courses that consume time and financial aid dollars, but do not bear course credit. Many students do not complete these courses and subsequently drop out, leaving them in debt and with no degree.

Strong Start to Finish wants to help more students overcome this barrier, which keeps college graduation rates stagnant.

In the months ahead, Strong Start to Finish plans to award three-year grants of up to $2.25 million to states and college systems to put effective reforms into practice. These reforms are drawn from evidence-based principles developed by an alliance of national organizations, including Complete College America, Jobs for the Future and the American Association of Community Colleges. These practices include an intake process that identifies student needs early and matches them with appropriate supports, and enrolls students in the appropriate sequence of courses aligned with their planned program of study.

Gates, Great Lakes and Kresge combined have committed $13 million to the launch of this new initiative, and all three funders have track records of supporting and funding projects aimed at college readiness and completion. Gates has supported work in this area on multiple fronts, from its College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) initiative to its involvement in the University Innovation Alliance, another multi-funder effort to increase retention and completion among low-income college students.

We've written much about Great Lakes, which has supported a variety of projects—from its College Completion Grants to its efforts to expand access to paid internships—all aimed at helping more students persist through college to graduation. Kresge, like Gates, is a partner in the University Innovation Alliance. Strong Start to Finish aligns well with the Michigan-based funder's "to and through" approach to higher education projects, which emphasize readiness and completion.

The first round of grants by Strong Start to Finish is limited to higher education systems and metro areas in states where the funders' work is currently focused. These states are California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.