Notre Dame de Namur University, founded in 1851, sits amid lush lawns and big pines in an affluent neighborhood of Belmont, Calif., about two miles from the little house where I grew up. My younger son and I sneak onto the campus to play Frisbee golf when visiting my mother and brother. I assumed from the look of the place that it catered to rich kids, but I was wrong.
More than half of its students are the first in their families to go to college. NDNU is playing an unusual role, along with 41 other colleges in 13 states and the District, getting graduates of KIPP, the nation’s largest and best-known charter school network, through college. KIPP and several other educational organizations have thrown out the old philosophy of letting students struggle on their own to develop college survival skills. Instead, they are partnering with colleges that promise to show students how to study and help them handle crises with mentors and advisers.
KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin were not pleased when their organization reported in 2011 that only 33 percent of KIPP graduates old enough to have graduated from college had actually done so. “We aspire for our students to earn four-year degrees at the same rate as students from the nation’s highest-income families, giving them the same opportunity for self-sufficiency,” they said in a statement.
A new survey shows the KIPP percentage has jumped to 44 percent, plus another 5 percentage points for those who completed a two-year degree. The average college graduation rate for low-income Americans is 10 percent.
KIPP has been particularly active in the District, where it has 12 schools. The local colleges partnering with KIPP are Trinity Washington University, with 16 former KIPP students; Maryland, with 11; and Georgetown, with five. KIPP-partnering colleges nationwide include Franklin & Marshall, Penn, Brown, Vanderbilt, Rice, the University of Texas at Austin, Duke, Spelman and Morehouse.
Under the partnerships, colleges agree to make college affordable for KIPP students, 86 percent of whom are from low-income families. They also provide guidance and resources: College officials are assigned to keep in touch with them, and the students have campus activities and mentors to support them.
In the past several years, according to Jason Murray, NDNU vice president for enrollment management, the college has aggressively sought funds for low-income students. It won federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. That reputation drew the attention of KIPP, which has seven schools in the Bay Area. Seven KIPP graduates attend the college. Murray said the school has committed to raise that number to 15, and it has scholarships.
Other high-performing charter networks, including YES Prep and Achievement First, have been developing college partnerships, as have the Big Picture and Cristo Rey school networks. All have benefited from the pioneering work of the New York-based Posse Foundation, which began creating partnerships in 1989 with colleges willing to take groups of students needing extra support.
Assessing the success of such efforts is difficult. KIPP is one of the few organizations with the resources to do it. Its 44 percent college graduation rate is based on the 244 graduates it found among the 559 students who completed eighth grade between 1998 and 2003 at the first two middle schools established by Levin and Feinberg, in the South Bronx and Houston. The calculation allows four years to complete high school and six to complete college, the standard for college graduation statistics.
KIPP now has 141 schools in 20 states and the District, with a total of 50,000 students. Next year it will begin counting college degrees awarded to students who finished eighth grade in 2005 at three other middle schools, including the KIPP DC: KEY Academy. The number of students who must be counted will get very large very quickly, but the KIPP people say they intend to do that, with the help of colleges such as NDNU.