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A Matter of Degrees

October 23, 2018
Innovative Programs Usher More Students To and Through College

Jalen Epps’ parents always wanted a great school for their son. They enrolled Jalen in first grade through a voluntary Massachusetts program to expand opportunity through diversity and Jalen soon found himself attending a public school in Sharon, an affluent suburb near Boston.

Jalen’s parents believed that a better school would lead to a degree from a good college and solid job. For a while, the plan worked — until Jalen enrolled in that good college.

Jalen nearly slipped off that track after his first year at college. His two part-time jobs, a work-study program and the lure of friends and travel left little time for classes and studying. “I didn’t have the time or the want to be learning about A squared plus B squared,” admits Jalen.

Fortunately, Jalen found Duet (formerly Match Beyond), a Boston-based college-support program that partners with Southern New Hampshire University to offer flexible and affordable degree programs, as well as start-to-finish college coaching. Duet grew out of the high-performing urban Match Charter Public School in Boston, run by nonprofit Match Education.

Jalen Epps, second from right, earned his associate's degree from Southern New Hampshire University with help from Duet, a program that offers start-to-finish college coaching.

Now enrolled in Duet’s supportive program, Jalen is able to set his own pace and schedule and learn skills that are immediately applicable to his future career.

The Walton Family Foundation partners with innovative programs like Duet that support first-generation, low-income and minority students as they earn college degrees and secure jobs. Today, just one in 10 students who earn bachelor’s degrees by age 24 come from low-income families – and they are five times less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by this age than their higher income peers.

Another such program is KIPP Through College, an initiative from the noted public charter school network. Launched over a decade ago, KIPP Through College is designed to help KIPP high school students select the right college and career path and help alumni navigate the academic, social and financial challenges they might face in college.

“We aspire for our kids to have choice-filled lives and economic self-sufficiency,” says Jonathan Cowan, the Chief Research, Data & Innovation Officer at KIPP, who oversees KIPP Through College. “We believe that promises to children are sacred. We view a four-year college degree as the surest stepping stone to get there.”

KIPP Through College is designed to help KIPP high school students select the right college and career path and help alumni navigate the challenges they might face in college.

Today, KIPP Through College dvisors provide traditional guidance on college matching and financial aid. They encourage students to apply to at least nine colleges, including six “target” or “reach” colleges, where African American and Latino students earn degrees at high rates. KIPP partners with over 90 colleges and universities who share KIPP’s commitment to supporting first-generation college students.

The work continues after high school graduation — KIPP stays in touch with students over the summer to ensure they show up on the first day. The work continues even when alumni start college — KIPP Through College keeps in contact with alumni during and even after college.

These strategies have helped boost KIPP graduates’ college completion rates from 33 percent in 2011 to 38 percent as of fall 2016 (as well as another five percent who earned associates degrees). Although KIPP’s graduation rate is approximately four times the national average for students from low-income communities, Jonathan says KIPP is aiming higher, with a medium-term goal of helping 50 percent of its alumni earn four-year degrees.

Likewise, about a decade after its founding in 2000, Match Education began to notice that despite their students’ stellar college acceptance rates, just over half were earning college degrees in six years or less. “We had put a lot of time and effort into getting these kids through high school, with the idea of [their] finishing college,” says Mike Larsson, Duet co-founder and president.

The college-support program Duet provides students with a coach to help them navigate the demands of higher education and graduate quicker.

Like Jalen, many struggled not only with high tuition but also inflexible class schedules and little support in navigating the competing demands of college life.

In response, Match launched what would later become Duet, enrolling nine of its alumni in the Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA), which offers competency-based programs for students who also work. Duet provides students with a coach to help them navigate the demands of higher education and graduate quicker. Duet costs just $6,000 per year — a fraction of the cost of private colleges, state universities and even community colleges, and includes courses through CfA.

Duet has enrolled 250 students from a wide range of Boston-area high schools, with plans to grow to serve 400 students next year. All Duet students have either a high school diploma or GED. Most have tried but struggled with college before. Today, with Duet’s support, nearly three-quarters are on track to earn associate’s degrees within three years.

Last summer, Jalen became one of 83 students who earned their degree through Duet, finishing his associate’s degree while also working full-time at J.P. Morgan Chase. He is now on his way to earning his bachelor’s degree in business management.

Jalen credits his Duet coaches and the real-world relevance of CfA’s coursework with giving him the support needed to focus on completing college.

“The Duet program works for people who work, but you have to want it,” reflects Jalen. “You have to put in the hard work day in and day out, but they’ll be there to support you.”

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