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It’s tough for low-income minority students to make it through college, especially if they’re first-generation college-goers. But thanks to the efforts of one DC nonprofit and several charter schools, students from the District may have a better chance than most.

More and more DC students are taking the SAT and applying to college, but how many are actually graduating?

Because it often takes low-income students more than four years to get a BA, the six-year rate has become the standard for measuring college completion for that group . DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education has only recently begun to track college graduation rates and won’t have the six-year figure available until next spring.

But the DC College Access Program (DC-CAP), a nonprofit that offers college support to all DC public school students, says the six-year graduation rate for the students it serves, most of whom are low-income and minority, is 44%.

While that may sound low, it’s far better than the 11% national average for low-income first-generation (LIFG) college students, a category that includes many alumni of DC high schools. Overall, the average six-year completion rate at four-year colleges is 59%.

LIFG students can encounter any number of obstacles on the way to a degree. Even those who excelled at their high schools may feel lost academically. Socially, they may feel out of place, especially at elite institutions. And, even more than other students, they may not have a clear idea of the connection between college courses and what they want to do in the future.

The biggest problem, though, is usually financial. Even after cobbling together scholarships and loans, students may find themselves forced to choose between attending class and showing up for jobs that make it possible for them to stay enrolled.

Often, what should be a minor setback ends up derailing a college career. Students may not want to ask for help or may not know who to ask.

But if you’re a low-income college student from DC, you have a better than usual chance that someone from home is trying to make sure you stay on track to graduate.

DC-CAP supports students after high school graduation

For many, that person is an adviser from DC-CAP. A group of DC business leaders started the privately funded organization 15 years ago to fill a void in college advising services in DC Public School high schools. Seven Six years ago it began serving charter schools as well. DC-CAP says the college enrollment rate in DC is now about 60% , double what it was when the organization started.

During that same time, the college completion rate has tripled. DC-CAP’s college retention advisers, building on relationships that start in 9th grade, keep track of students across the country through email, social media, and phone calls. On campuses that have a lot of DC-CAP students, the organization asks upperclassmen to act as peer mentors and liaisons.

DC-CAP also works with students’ families on financial planning and gets regular reports directly from colleges so its advisers can monitor students’ progress and intervene when necessary. Also, advisers can check on students during emergencies, as one recently did with students in upstate New York during a massive snowstorm.

Charter schools visit freshmen

But some DC charter high schools that send many low-income students to college go even further. Three schools—Thurgood Marshall Academy, KIPP DC, and SEED—not only stay in touch remotely but also try to visit all students during their freshman year.

"The visit makes a huge difference,” says Tevera Stith, director of the KIPP Through College program, which serves both alumni of KIPP DC’s own high school and those who go on to other schools after attending a KIPP middle school. “For some of these kids, they won’t have a family member who will visit them.”

DC-CAP, which has only four advisers for 7,000 students at 500 colleges, doesn’t have the capacity to make those kinds of visits. The charter schools support only a few hundred alumni at any given time.

Of the three charters, Thurgood Marshall has the highest six-year graduation rate, 65%. KIPP DC hasn’t yet had a cohort of alumni reach the six-year mark, but Stith says she thinks the rate will be about 45%.

SEED says that 33% of its students who graduated from high school at least five years ago have earned a BA, while another 10% have earned an associate’s degree or are currently in college.

Finding the right match

But when a student goes to a college that SEED has identified as having stronger supports for low-income students, the completion rate rises to 54%. Staffers at DC-CAP and the three charter schools all keep lists of institutions where their students have done well, and they emphasize the importance of finding the right fit for each student whether it’s an Ivy League university or a community college.

"We have institutions that will take students with less than a 2.0 GPA and be really committed to serving those students and making sure they’re retained and graduate,” says Tosha Lewis, Vice-President of Retention and Data Management for DC-CAP.

A good college match can help students avoid academic and social difficulties. And the college support staff in DC do their best to connect students with financial aid, sometimes providing funds to cover small but essential expenses. DC-CAP provides students with up to $2,070 a year for five years and has disbursed a total of about $31 28 million since its founding.

Any DC student can also take advantage of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant program (DC TAG), which provides up to $10,000 in tuition assistance at public four-year colleges across the country to help make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates. In addition, DC TAG provides up to $2,500 per year towards tuition at private colleges in the DC area, private historically black colleges, and two-year colleges nationwide.

OSSE will provide data on graduation rates and remedial classes

DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which administers DC TAG, is also beginning to focus on college support and retention, according to Dr. Antoinette Mitchell, the assistant superintendent for adult and career education.

OSSE plans to publish a list of colleges where DC students have done well, Mitchell said. And beginning next school year, information about college enrollment and four- and six-year graduation rates for every DC high school will be available on OSSE’s LearnDC website, along with information about how many students take the SAT and ACT and the average scores.

OSSE is also planning to begin tracking the number of DC students who need remedial classes when they get to college. While it’s clear that many DC high school graduates fall into that category, a hard figure isn’t currently available. And it’s an important figure to have: generally, only 35% of college students who take remedial classes graduate within six years.

It’s unrealistic to expect all of DC’s high schools to ensure that the college careers of their low-income graduates will be entirely smooth, and support from the colleges themselves or non-profits like DC-CAP will continue to be vital in helping students cope with financial and social challenges. But it shouldn’t be unrealistic to expect that, in the not too distant future, every DC high school will give its college-going graduates the academic skills they need to handle college-level work. After all, that’s what high schools are supposed to do.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.