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What should Detroit high schools be doing differently? We asked some of their alumni

High schools that understand their mission to be the preparation of students who can be successful in any environment they choose after leaving high school–especially in pursuit of a college degree–also understand that they need data on how their alumni do, and what challenges they face. They need to create a feedback loop wherein their alumni let them know how they can better prepare students for success.

Some of the best national charter school networks get that data by offering students “book scholarships,” relatively small-dollar grants for alumni who provide information about their college experience.

With funding from the Mandell and Madelein Berman Foundation we administered a book scholarship program with three Detroit high schools. Alumni who sent the high schools a copy of their transcript and who completed an online survey received $100. Each participating high school then wrote a report summarizing the trends they observed in their alumni data, and submitted that report to us. In addition, they submitted data taken from the transcripts, including students’ high school GPA, best ACT score, college GPA, college year, and college credits earned.

After reviewing both the data and the school narratives, we’ve prepared an overview to share what we learned. You can click here for the entire report, but we’ll share some critical highlights here:

High schools need to provide increased rigor, training in academic habits, financial literacy, and cultural preparation. College students report being underprepared for the rigor that would be required in college—both in volume of work and in intellectual challenge. Overwhelmingly, they report not having the time management and study habits to be consistently prepared and thriving. They also struggle with financial literacy, which creates added stress. And finally, those students at predominantly white institutions could be better prepared for the realities of that experience. The combination of these challenges is leading to overall slow credit accumulation for these students, which can lead to the loss of financial aid.

Student agency is critical. High schools can draw on their qualitative assessment of a student’s “agency,” or ownership and grit, to anticipate how well students will do in college. Adult observations of the types of characteristics and behaviors that they would consider “agency” are meaningful; those characteristics and behaviors make a difference when a student gets to college. This could help inform a tiered intervention or support model.

Academic behaviors matter. As high school GPA and standardized test scores rise, not surprisingly, college performance also tends to rise. More powerful than either of those indicators independently, though, is a college-readiness score that looks at the two indicators together. Academic behaviors are likely as important as content knowledge.

There is a meaningful difference in how colleges serve these students. To take three schools, by way of example, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor each have seven or eight students that participated in the book scholarship program. At Wayne, no students are on-track to graduate in four years, and 57.1 percent are on-track to graduate in five years. At Western, 20 percent may graduate in four years, but a total of 71.4 percent are on-track to graduate in five years. At U of M, 62.5 percent of students are on-track to graduate in four years, and 87.5 are on track to graduate in five years. As high schools have more experience with sending their students to college, they should continue to learn which schools are providing the right environment and support to help students be successful.

Slow credit accumulation. This data raises additional questions about how to support students in achieving on-track rates of credit accumulation. Overall, only 48 percent of the students who participated are on-track for five-year graduation. Students who take longer risk the loss of scholarships.

Perhaps our most critical learning was reinforcing for us how important it is that high schools create this feedback loop. Again, click here to view the entire report.

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good.

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