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Reigniting Hope for the College Bound

November 23, 2011 By Asad Zaman, Fellow

Soon after the Citizens League released its 2004 Higher Education Report, Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC) President Phil Davis met with Metropolitan State University President Wilson Bradshaw for breakfast at the Downtowner Woodfire Grill.

MCTC Executive Director of College Advancement Reede Webster and Metro State Vice President of University Advancement Nancy McKillips joined them.

The four educators were extremely concerned about the report’s conclusion that only three percent of Minnesota’s ninth grade students of color were projected to complete a bachelor’s degree before the age of 25. They decided to take action to increase graduation rates, and sought the Twin Cities' other major player Saint Paul College to join the partnership.

Over several meetings, they discovered major financial barriers. Ironically, they found most students already qualified for federal aid but were unable to access it for various reasons. Many students qualified for financial aid for the bulk of the cost but were unable to make the modest investment needed to pay for the remainder of the cost.

Many others dropped out of college due to minor family situations that got in the way of continuing their studies. “We believed that if we could overcome the real and perceived financial barriers to attending college we could increase college participation and graduation rates among low-income students and students of color,” said Phil Davis.

They suggested a radically simple proposition: Any student who lives in the cities of Minneapolis or St Paul and graduates from a public school would be offered two or more years (72 credits) of education for free.

If the students committed to persistence and hard work, the colleges would commit to (i) help students navigate the financial aid regulations, (ii) provide all the support needed by the students up to and including hands-on or “intrusive counseling” and (iii) find donors to arrange for private scholarships if financial aid did not cover the entire cost.

The General Mills, Minneapolis and Travelers foundations eagerly stepped up to help the “Power of You” program, and over time have been joined by three dozen other foundations.

“We were met with astonishment and disbelief at first” says Reede Webster, “but once students realized they had a college option, it became easier for them to commit to enroll and eventually graduate.”

A program evaluation performed by the Wilder Foundation after the first two years of the program found that: “Enrollment of new Minneapolis and Saint Paul public high school graduates more than doubled at schools offering the Power of YOU program, with a larger increase the second year of the program than the first.”

The Wilder Foundation evaluation also noted “large increases in the numbers in students from underrepresented groups” and that “Power of YOU students tended to have higher retention rates than their peers within the same cohort as well as prior cohorts.”

Since 2006 when the “Power of You” program started over 2,000 students have benefitted from it. Of them, over 1,300 were MCTC students. The program is open to students of all races. Students who participate in this program have a 67% higher graduation rate than students who do not. The overall graduation rate has jumped by over 30% over the life of this program. The vast majority of the students surveyed reported that they hoped to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The “Power of You” program has several public policy implications. It demonstrates that focusing on closing the achievement gap benefits all students served by an educational institution. This program provides a practical example of a successful public private partnership. It also demonstrates that home grown ideas can provide practical and effective solutions. A more detailed analysis of the various components of this program and their applicability to other programs is needed.

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  • Kurt Anderson says:

    December 1, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Why do they limit the program to public school grads?  There are many parochial school kids whose families have worked hard to get them educated and who also could benefit from this program.

  • Reede Webster says:

    December 2, 2011 at 5:36 am

    There are two primary reasons why the Power of YOU program is limited to public school students. First, there was a need to limit the scope of the model based on external funding available. Second, it is extraordinarily clear that the achievement gap is most pronounced in our urban public schools. Nearly 70% of students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are students of color, while 73% of college-bound students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are white.  The Power of YOU has reversed this, with 75% of newly graduated Minneapolis high school graduates enrolling in college full-time through this program who are students of color. Last year, 96% were low-income.

    The program does include charter school students. Additionally, expansion efforts are being discussed in a dozen first-tier suburban high schools.

    And importantly, enrollment has more than doubled and graduation rates have significantly increased.