Postsecondary Success Blog: Expectations + Support = Success

Nicole Yohalem
December 14, 2010

Most of us get the general idea, even if we don't know the statistics: young people who drop out of high school are far more likely to be unemployed, a single parent or in prison than their peers who finish. Estimates suggest that only about 20 percent of all dropouts earn a GED. Of those who do, a little over half will go on to enroll in colleage but just 12 percent of those who seek an associate’s degree earn it, and fewer than 2 percent seeking a bachelor’s do so, according to findings from the National Education Longitudinal Study and National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth.
These are terrible odds. I recently had the good fortune to visit a program that not only beats them regularly, but is helping change the odds for its students.
Gateway to College at Portland Community College in Oregon helps 16- to 21-year-olds who have dropped out of high school simultaneously earn a diploma and college credit. It also helps them reinvent themselves as engaged learners with clear goals and plans for achieving them.
From the moment I arrived on the campus, it was clear something unique was happening at Gateway. When I pushed open the door of an otherwise nondescript community college building, the first thing I saw was an adult (an instructor, I later learned) approach a student to ask how things were going. The student’s response: “Pretty well but actually, I’ve realized I really do need more help with reading.”

As I walked into the restroom, the two were making a plan to work on it. When I walked out about three minutes later, the same instructor was deep in conversation with another student, who was explaining he wasn’t sure whether or not to move back in with his mom and her boyfriend.
For someone who has long believed “it’s the relationship, stupid,” this almost felt staged. But the conversations I had with staff and students for the remainder of my visit suggested those few minutes were probably representative of what happens every day in the hallways at Gateway.
While important organizational policies and structures are at work in the model (dual enrollment, committed leadership, institutional agreements, etc.), relationships are where the rubber hits the road.

Staff called “resource specialists” get to know each student well, especially during the first intensive term when students learn in a small community of peers, preparing to transition into college courses with the general student population. Resource specialists act as mentors, advisors, instructors and career coaches.
Pam Blumenthal, the director, told me that, “Resource Specialists are the touchstone, the person students go to. We have students who are homeless, pregnant, who are dealing with domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, you name it. We are constantly creating new ways to support them.”

Resource specialists come from a variety of backgrounds including education and social work. Although some have experience as college advisors, Blumenthal noted “it’s easier to train people on the college piece than the relationship piece,” so it’s more important that they come with solid experience working with teenagers or young adults.
In addition to the case management role, resource specialists teach college survival and career planning classes, so they are interacting with students both in and outside of the classroom. 
When I asked one student why he had dropped out of school he said, “High school sucked. All I can say is it sucked. And no one even knew me.” (Could it be that it sucked because no one even knew him?). When I asked him how Gateway was different, it boiled down to Jane, his resource specialist. “She wants us to learn. She wants us to succeed.”
It’s not just that students connect with a supportive adult. They connect with a supportive adult who expects them to be successful. Support combined with high expectations and opportunities to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom (students participate in a variety of campus and community leadership opportunities), is the formula that’s working here.
And to what end? The average student is a first generation college-goer with a 1.6 GPA and roughly 40 percent of their high school credits completed when they enroll. Once at Gateway, their average attendance is 87 percent. Students surpass entering freshmen on college placement exams and accumulate an average of 41 college credits in addition to their high school diploma, putting them well on their way to earning an associate’s degree.
A million and a half students drop out of high school every year in this country. That’s a recipe for disaster even in good times. In this economy, the prospects for these young people are painfully bleak. Gateway, now being replicated at 27 sites in 16 states, is helping young people that many in our society have already written off—helping them get back on track, enroll in postsecondary education and successfully finish with a work-ready degree.

For more information and a student perspective, check out this video on Gateway to College


Nicole Yohalem is the Forum for Youth Investment's Director of Special Projects, where she oversees work related to postsecondary success, out-of-school time, and bridging research, policy and practice. (The Forum is SparkAction's managing partner.)






I must say its a thought provoking post.

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