Author’s note—This is part III in a IV-part series of research articles: Parts I & II explored why and how US public high school students face significant inequity when aspiring to attain college and career readiness, and Part IV will propose specific, tangible action as relates to 9th graders in particular. Footnotes appearing in parenthetical format connect to URLs at the end of Parts I, II, and III; full details of all works cited from the series will appear at the conclusion of Part IV. Thank you for joining me.
College and Career Readiness: Whose Responsibility?
In a perfect world, state and federal governments would fund vehicles establishing essential information supporting college and career readiness so that every public high school student would receive equitable opportunity. Since the slow and sticky wheels of bureaucracy sometimes impede this process, the responsibility often falls to leaders at the district level to fill the gaps, or risk the under-aspiration of young people entrusted to their care.
A Federal Approach
Encouragingly, leaders at the federal level are working to solve for specific aspects of the overall problem— most notably the mounting student debt crisis. To that end, a major initiative at the Federal Student Aid office has been underway since 2018. “The Next Gen Financial Services Environment will mark a new milestone in the evolution of federal student aid,” said Dr. A. Wayne Johnson who oversees the FSA, “FSA’s more than 40 million customers deserve a world- class experience. Without question, the future of FSA is upon us.” (1) Despite an enthusiastic beginning, lawsuits ensued, as vendors clamored for position to receive the funding. A company called Navient, which manages $300 billion in student loans, sued the FSA, alleging that the scope of work in the solicitation had been altered during the course of the procurement. Many other vendors—all longtime providers in lucrative student loan processing—joined in the lawsuit. Servicing student loans is big business. The intersection of that corporate whirlwind with the federal government’s bureaucratic barometric pressure makes for a perfect storm. And the ones getting wet are America’s students.
On Jan. 15, 2019 the FSA cancelled and replaced the disputed opportunity. They requested that the Court of Federal Claims dismiss the lawsuit. “It’s a complete mess,” Colleen Campbell, associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress, said of the procurement. She and others already entrenched in the current model acknowledge that it’s time for a change. Students clearly aren’t being offered a complete picture of their options, and in terms of the loans themselves, servicers are not held to stringent enough standards related to transparency and risk. (2)
In a press release a little over a year earlier, a more hopeful tone had been evident. “This overhaul is long overdue,” said Secretary DeVos. “Students and their families should be treated like the valued customers they are and should have access to the tools needed for success. Today’s announcement is a significant first step in our commitment to improving the experiences students, parents and borrowers have with FSA and in bringing federal student aid programs into the 21st century.” (3) This upbeat communication nonetheless belied a certain framework in the way the Secretary and others on her staff were viewing the relationship between the Department and those who access its loans. Rather than “citizens” or “students”, they are referred to as “customers.” America’s public-school students nonetheless deserve to be cautioned and more intentionally instructed about financial aid literacy. They need to know that undertaking a federal student loan is less like getting a helping hand from friendly Uncle Sam and more like purchasing a commodity from someone with the ability to make it hurt if they don’t repay.
The FAFSA acts as a primary gateway through which millions of underserved students each academic year access higher education. Despite the improvements of FAFSA access due to the mobile app project launched in October 2018, much remains to be done to increase information symmetry across broad student demographics. Because these changes are slow in coming, districts must convey critical information to students and their families to ensure they understand the actual lay of the economic land. They must ensure they comprehend that loans should be a secondary fallback for the college-bound, with merit-based aid as a preferable first course of action since it doesn’t need to be repaid. They must demonstrate in a clear manner how to attain those advantages.
Furthermore, due to the FAFSA’s complexities, there has historically been a significant underutilization of this federal aid. Only 61 percent of high school seniors complete the application, and many procrastinate timely submissions. This leaves $24 billion in federal aid unclaimed. Many other students initially file the application, but then don’t persist to actually enroll at a higher education institution. With just 31 percent of low-income students leveraging the assistance of a Pell Grant to afford college, it’s clear this issue disproportionately affects students who are already disadvantaged. (4) The benefits for public school students if time were dedicated to ensuring this weren’t the case justifies shifting resources in that direction. Regional and national examples abound, many of which are commendable despite failing to solve the problem at scale. Intervention guiding disadvantaged students through all this unfamiliar terrain is not only desirable, but necessary.
Assessment of Current Policy Alternatives
Nonprofit organizations, high schools, communities, NGOs and philanthropic organizations work independently or together in many locations to address the needs of high schoolers as they try to transition. Unfortunately, the fragmented and inconsistent way this support reaches students leaves millions unreached and others under- or mis-informed. Nationally, GEAR UP (federal) and AVID (nonprofit) programs reach a fraction of the full student population of 9th-12th graders in America. None of these initiatives, however positive, has yet harnessed the power of the right technology and content to solve the problem at scale for all students.
Regional examples of local innovation attempting to buttress this under-performing paradigm abound. The Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education recommends something called the Freshman Seminar for students in their first year of high school. Programs like these offer learning materials and training specialists to aid students in study and social skills. Corporations sometimes try to help by sponsoring old- paradigm support. An example: Flushing High School in New York City has been called a dropout factory. Its program helps keep at-risk students in school through a non-profit sponsored by AT&T, bringing in support staff to encourage students to participate in after- school activities in athletics and the arts and to work closely with low-performing students throughout the school day. (5) Another notable nonprofit, Strive for College, provides video mentorship to select students offered by corporate sponsors and their employees from major entities like American Express and Deloitte. (6) Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher/Better Make Room initiative offers another model dedicated to inspiring every student to take charge of their future by completing education past high school. As related in her compelling autobiography Becoming, she herself had experienced discouragement, when a busy high school counselor in Chicago told her she was “not Princeton material.” (7) The stories of such biased and unfair experiences among students, who rely on the uneven levels of expertise populating America’s guidance offices, underscore the need for fair access to motivation, information, and preparation for all.
The human dignity of all students, whether that of an African-American girl in Chicago, a Caucasian boy growing up in the hollers of Kentucky, or a Latina in southern California struggling with both information and language barriers, must be borne in mind as district leaders determine how to allocate their precious resources. Not only does symmetrical access to inquiry-based learning need to be effectively administered, but the data resulting from the right solutions must drive informed decisions for future decisions based on statistical analysis, not hunch.
A Research-Based Solution
Research confirms that favorable fiscal impact for both student futures and district metrics increase with access to necessary support. A new player on the scene, GATE [openthegate.us], leverages the expertise of a university-supported research team offering an intervention that has been collaboratively created by a team of career educators. Viable data from GATE’s GRADS Initiative allows leaders to draw conclusions informing change. The support focuses on optimized cognition, decreased dropout rates, increased GPAs, improved exam scores, and clarified college or career pathways for students from traditionally underserved backgrounds. Its particular area of focus targets support for first generation, low socioeconomic status, English learners, and other at-risk populations.
GRADS is an acronym standing for Greater Retention and Access for Disadvantaged Students. The GRADS Initiative addresses specific problems of practice by developing, testing, and refining blended learning models, incorporating a digital curriculum with both video-driven and local live mentorship in order to optimize student outcomes. The initiative aims to positively impact state and district metrics by overcoming time and budgetary constraints.
With GATE’s research team overseeing the GRADS Initiative, the team collaboratively works to optimize each minute an in-person mentor is able to attain with each student, and to ensure over 100 video-based trainings fill the gaps for students who have no knowledgeable adults to guide them. Professional educators project that the GATE solution provides scalable impact to help as many students as possible without untenable hiring requirements. (8)
In GATE’s phase 1 of the GRADS research, already complete, researchers partnered with national community-based organization JAG.org, already allied within schools, in order to help replace systemic gaps with accessible, actionable support. (9) As intermediaries, GRADS Initiative researchers guided and facilitated exploration with fellow leaders toward measurable student outcomes. District-level objectives as the initiative proceeds will be collaboratively established by stakeholders answering the following question: “what does success look like for us related to this initiative?”
A central conviction of the GRADS Initiative: waiting until 11th or 12th grade to guide students regarding future options and implications is far too late. Offering 9th or 10th grade supports marks an important earlier starting point, for logistic reasons that include the current prior-prior year tax consequences for filling out the FAFSA, among others enumerated in Part IV. The sooner a student has a personalized road map to success, the better equipped he or she will be to make knowledgeable and strategic moves toward not only financial literacy, but true future readiness.
Positionality acknowledgement: the author is founder of OpenTheGate.us and lead researcher on the GRADS Initiative.
Be sure to check in soon for Part IV – Ninth Grade Intervention: A Rationale.
District leaders are invited to connect to the author directly by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Footnotes for Part III
1 Press Release. 29 November 2017. FSA. https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-announces-vision-transform-federal-student-aid-improve-customer-service.
2 Mazmanian. Education Reboots. https://fcw.com/articles/2019/01/23/fsa-nextgen-procurement-reboot.aspx.
3 Press Release. 29 November 2017. FSA. https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-announces-vision-transform-federal-student-aid-improve-customer-service.
4 Smith-Barrow. https://hechingerreport.org/are-too-few-college-students-asking-for-federal-aid/.
6 Strive for College. http://striveforcollege.org.
7 Obama, Michelle. Becoming. 2018. New York: Crown Publishing.
8 GATE. OpenTheGate.us/grads-initiative.
9 Jobs for America’s Graduates. http://www.jag.org/node/585.