Increased graduation rates are great, and they don’t solve our equity problem

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

By Nick Mathern

The US Department of Education announced last week that, once again, high school graduation rates are at a historic high. Across the US, 82% of young people who entered the 9th grade in fall of 2010 earned a diploma by the spring of 2014 (the rate was stalled for two years at 75% in 2008 and 2009[2]). This represents tremendous progress toward the goal set by America’s Promise Alliance of a 90% graduation rate by 2020. This is progress, not just because the overall number is going up, but because it is going up for low-income students and students of color as well. Graduation rates across demographics are not even yet, but we’re getting closer.

Still, those diplomas are not leading us to increased equity. The high school diploma is an ever-important step in the education process, but, it is just that, a step. It’s not news to anyone that we’re long past the point where a high school diploma is sufficient for preparing students for family wage jobs. That isn’t to say that all of our young people need four-year degrees—they don’t. But our 21st century job market is dependent on a balanced workforce that includes substantially more college degrees and technical certificates than American students currently earn.

The problem, then, is that while we’ve increased our capacity to get a larger and more equitable percentage of the population to clear the bar of high school graduation, it still amounts to a terminal degree for far too many students. The PELL Institute recently released a report demonstrating that over the past 45 years there has been a dramatic increase in college completion rates for students in the highest income quartile (and a doubling of attainment for students in the 3rd quartile as well).[3] However, for students in the lowest and in the second income quartiles, rates have only increased very modestly—not nearly enough to keep pace with the education demands of today’s workforce. (If you’re disinclined to read the entire 53 page report, has the salient graphics here[4].) NPR’s Morning Edition noted that first generation students are four times more likely than other students to drop out of college in their first year

In order to address this problem, we need to extend the pressure for accountability and equity that has yielded sustained progress in our nation’s high school graduation rates to our entire education system. We must ensure that the 81% of young people who earn an on-time high school diploma are both prepared and properly supported to achieve a post-secondary credential that allows them to access the American dream. Our current system doesn’t do that. Rather, it brings students to the end of the K-12 line, drops them off—very unevenly prepared—and cynically wishes them luck in achieving the daunting next phase of their journey. We can no longer afford the inequitable outcomes that result. Post-secondary education is no longer exclusively about achieving affluence and privilege. It is critical to meeting our workforce needs, and it cannot be exclusively attainable by those who come from affluence and privilege.

To be clear, this is not a problem that is being neglected. Across the country, there are many committed educators and policy makers who are working tirelessly to address college preparation, access, and completion. We’ve blazed many promising paths forward, but we have a long way to go in order to bring our solutions to scale. Gateway to College is one effort among many within the early college and dual enrollment movements to build college skills and success among first generation and low-income high school students. Programs like this, which focus both on college preparation and enrollment while students are still in high school, are critical and must be complemented by college-based programs that provide intensive support services to students who might otherwise struggle in college. The most successful of these programs help students to develop a sense of belonging within post-secondary institutions and build relationships which support them when they encounter challenges.

We should be encouraged by the positive news that more students are earning high school diplomas, but remain sober about how few students are ready or supported to earn the credential they need to lift them out of poverty. While a high school diploma is not enough, we can use the momentum of our improvement in high school graduation rates to double down on the next critical piece—genuine college readiness and a coordinated system for transition and support to ensure post-secondary success.


Nick Mathern is Associate Vice President of Policy & Partnership Development. Since 2005, he has brokered agreements between colleges, school districts, and state education agencies in order to connect communities with training, professional development, and evaluation services, as well as replication and implementation of the Gateway to College program model. Read more.





Utilizing Data to Drive Student Growth

Thursday, December 10, 2015

One of the guiding principles behind the Gateway to College model is that when disconnected or out-of-school youth take courses on a college campus they are more likely to earn a high school diploma than if they take similar courses in traditional high school settings. The premise is fairly simple – being a member of a learning community that offers attentive care, support and motivation building, students have the capability to be academically successful. Thus, on their path to a high school diploma, our students receive significant support through meaningful interactions with their peers, faculty and Gateway to College mentors. These relationships and the students’ individual efforts are the strongest contributing factors to their success; and it is a gratifying task for us to share those stories of success. One way to capture those accomplishments is through extensive data collection and analysis.

As researchers, we value data that can paint the most accurate and comprehensive picture of student growth at Gateway to College programs. Hence, our programs do a rigorous job of collecting course-level data for students, along with responses for surveys administered at the beginning and end of a school term. In efforts to measure student success, the field often relies too strongly and exclusively on students’ academic achievements measured through grades and credits earned. This approach overlooks the more social, psychological and emotional aspects of student growth measured through peer and faculty relationships, and student engagement outside the classroom. This is not to say that students’ academic progress and their social-emotional development are independent of each other. In fact, several studies have shown evidence of situational and contextual factors that influence success or failure of disconnected youth in high schools and colleges.

“Students’ classroom engagement, academic effort, and subsequent school success or failure are influenced not only by individual differences in skills, abilities, and predispositions, but also by many situational and contextual factors. Among these contextual factors, the quality of school-social relationships may be especially important.”[1]

School-social relationships, as highlighted by Goodenow (1993), offer students a “sense of belonging” or “school membership”, enabling them to feel personally valued and welcome. As the extent to which students feel accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school environment increases, their classroom participation and school retention increases.[2]  Some of our students share their experiences with Gateway to College, which reflects how their sense of belonging shaped their success and strengthened motivation:

“I’ve made really great relationships here at GtC and I am still heavily involved with the community here. I like to try and reach out when I can when I see other struggling students.”

“…I made friends in my first term that I am still close with on and off campus. I don’t think I would have graduated high school or been ready/motivated for college and my future without gateway.”


“…if I ever had the opportunity to choose this program I would pick it. I would tell them that this feels like home…”

Student survey responses validate these sentiments. We see an average 16% increase in the students’ reported sense of belonging after their first year with Gateway to College as compared to their previous education experiences. The sense of belonging is measured using the Goodenow scale of school membership. The scale assigns students a score between 1-5, based upon their responses to several questions that determine how committed and satisfied they are with their school environment. Scores closer to 5 are indicative of greater attachment with their institution; the average score recorded was 3.6 for students who had completed one academic year with Gateway to College.

As a result of this increased sense of belonging and commitment to their colleges and education, students are more likely to persist through high school and be more prepared for their future academic or professional goals.[3] To measure their preparedness, we collect and analyze student responses from the surveys, which identify their confidence or knowledge around the credit requirements for a high school diploma and further pursuit of their academic goals. On average, Gateway to College students score 3.5 out of 4 on their awareness of future goals and educational pathways. This score has been linked to greater motivation and drive to complete their education.

Our data offers additional valuable insight into the motivation and efforts of students who succeed with Gateway to College programs. We stress the importance of turning to social, psychological and emotional indicators of student motivation and success to fully comprehend the transformative impact of Gateway to College experience and offer more remarks from Gateway to College Students:

“I feel like all of us are here for the same thing so we all motivate each other…”

“I love the Gateway to College program. It has allowed me to discover my potential as a productive citizen in society.”


Kriti Agrawal is a Data Analyst, and has been with GtCNN since June 2015. She is responsible for designing and supporting extensive data collection systems and providing related support to our partners through online training modules, group training webinars and individualized technical assistance. Read more.

[1] Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Tufts University: Psychology in the Schools.

[2] Wehlage, G. (1989). Dropping Out: Can schools be expected to prevent it? In L. Weis, E. Farrar, & H. Petrie (Eds.), Dropouts from school. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[3] Shoemaker, Allen L. (1980). Construct Validity of Area Specific Self-Esteem: The Hare Self-Esteem Scale

Casey Family Programs and Gateway to College Host From Foster Care to College Conference

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Nationally, the rise in the high school graduation rate to 81% has given many states and communities reason to celebrate. These improved graduation rates have not, however, reached all segments of the population. Graduation rates remain low for students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English proficiency. The high proportion of foster youth who drop out before completing high school is especially alarming. Fewer than 50% of foster youth graduate from high school, and those who do graduate are unlikely to move on to a 4-year school. Fewer than 10% graduate from college, at a time when a college credential is increasingly critical to job prospects.

A significant number of Gateway to College students – approximately 10% of the students in our 41 programs – identify as foster youth. Increasingly, research shows that students succeed when they receive additional support services and interventions that help them navigate challenges in and out of the classroom. Approximately 70 percent of foster youth report that they want to attend college. They just do not know how. For foster youth, specific interventions are especially important for success in providing them a pathway to a postsecondary credential.

Over the course of two days, December 3 and 4, Casey Family Programs and Gateway to College National Network welcome national experts – including Dr. Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California – and teams from five states who are committed to improving educational outcomes for foster youth. Participants will learn about federal resources and opportunities to support foster youth, effective system approaches and interventions, and trauma and learning. Understanding the barriers these young people face in reaching educational milestones and how the issues of trauma present themselves and are responded to in a diverse, 21st century college environment are essential to increasing college access and persistence in postsecondary education.

If we are to continue to make progress toward providing pathways to postsecondary success for all students, it is essential that we work to improve outcomes for some of the most marginalized groups of students. Gateway to College National Network is proud to support Casey Family Programs in their work to support educational opportunities for foster youth, and in convening a group of fellow practitioners and leaders working with these youth in a diverse group of states. We are committed to improving the outcomes of the foster youth in our programs and, as we implement strategies and learn more, to share best practices with organizations and institutions nationwide who are helping these youth break through barriers to education and success.

We're Thankful for Students like Gabriel

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving is here! We’re thankful for the tenacity and perseverance of students like Gabriel.

Gabriel was failing out of school. He was facing difficulties at home and was hanging with students who encouraged him to skip class. By age 17 he was so far behind his peers he’d never be able to make up his coursework in time to graduate. Then he learned about the Gateway to College program through a friend. Through Gateway, he found his community. 

“I didn’t believe in myself when I first came here. But I’ve grown as a person. Everyone here is treated like family. Everyone here is like me. We motivate each other—keep each other going.”

Gabriel will graduate in spring 2016 with his diploma and credits toward his associate’s degree. He wants to be a social worker.

Gateway to College programs become family. Small learning cohorts inspire peer support, motivation, and accountability to succeed. Many of our students report feeling isolated, ignored, bullied, or lost in traditional high schools. The Gateway model provides each student with a dedicated advisor and counselor to help them plan their pathway to academic and personal success.

Help Gabriel and students like him realize their dream.

#GiveChange and Give a Second Chance Today!

Second Chances for All: States Must Do More to Reengage Out of School Youth

Monday, November 16, 2015

By Nick Mathern

Lateasha Brutton completed high school, but she didn’t earn her high school diploma. Like many of her peers, Lateasha advanced to the next grade level each year but did not pass the required Alabama high school exit exams. She wants her diploma, but now at age 24, the only option available to the Lowndes County resident is a GED prep course.

I get phone calls every week from young people across the country who have experienced the harsh economic realities of the US job market and want to get back in school to earn their high school diploma. They are among the 20% of young people who don't graduate with their high school class each year.  And, unfortunately, the quality of opportunities that I can share with them is dictated entirely by the city and state they are calling from. 

Fortunately, high school re-engagement opportunities are growing around the country. Each year, a few more communities and states are recognizing that we cannot pursue equitable economic opportunity, or even meet our own workforce demands, if we don't provide meaningful options for the nearly one million young people who leave school without a diploma each year. GtCNN fully supports creative policies like Washington State's Open Doors, which encourages the development of community partnerships to reengage out of school youth and has led to the creation of dozens of programs serving thousands of students. 

Other states have followed suit: In 2013 the state of Mississippi passed Mississippi Works Dual Enrollment, a program encouraging school districts to develop partnerships with community colleges to enroll out-of-school youth in order to complete their diplomas and earn workplace skills. This past summer, both of their western neighbors, Arkansas and Louisiana, enacted re-engagement legislation. Utah also passed new "dropout recovery" legislation in 2015. These states join a growing list of states, either through regulation or legislation, that encourage the reenrollment of out-of-school youth. National League of Cities' Zachia Nazarzai has outlined some exemplars

Despite encouraging efforts in some states, progress has not been even. Bills in Alabama's Senate and House that would have allowed districts to re-enroll students up to age 21 didn't make it out of committee this year. And, additional reengagement bills were left pending at the end of the session in several other states. 

These laws are critical tools for the United States' effort to fix our badly leaking education pipeline. And, we've got a long way to go. Most of these bills provide optional fixes to school districts. We need more policies like Washington's, where students can opt into programs offered by neighboring districts when their district doesn’t provide reengagement options; and Utah's, which require districts to provide recovery services. 

We need these policies EVERYWHERE. To borrow a phrase from our good friends at Opportunity Nation: "Opportunity should not be dictated by zip code." GtCNN is committed to advocate for universal reengagement opportunities. We encourage all communities and states to assess the breadth and quality of options available for their young people to overcome their barriers and help them get back on a path to academic and economic success. 

Many thanks to Madeleine Webster of the National Conference of State Legislatures (@NCSLorg) for her support in tracking new legislation in state houses across the country.


Nick Mathern is Associate Vice President of Policy & Partnership Development. Since 2005, he has brokered agreements between colleges, school districts, and state education agencies in order to connect communities with training, professional development, and evaluation services, as well as replication and implementation of the Gateway to College program model. Read more.

Community College Benefits Students and Society

Monday, November 09, 2015
Gateway to College National Network believes that all young people deserve the opportunity to thrive. We design and implement community-wide initiatives to ensure that disconnected youth are back on track, college and career ready. Gateway to College programs are hosted on community college campuses. Students earn their high school diplomas and college credits, placing them on a pathway to a meaningful postsecondary credential. Community colleges contribute greatly to the economy in their local communities, and provide more young people an opportunity to succeed.

Celebrating Success: Santa Rosa Junior College Joins GtCNN Presidents' Circle

Thursday, October 29, 2015

"A lot of us make mistakes when we're young—but we all deserve a second chance."


At 16, with her mother hospitalized, Jessica quit school to find work so she could take care of her three young siblings. After one year out of the classroom, Jessica realized that returning to school would afford her and her family greater opportunity, but didn’t know where to turn. She found the Gateway to College program at Santa Rosa Junior College in California, enrolled, and became a fiercely determined student. Conquering serious adversity, including childhood drug abuse, she graduated in spring 2015 with a 4.0 GPA. She plans to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology so she can work with teens like herself. Click here to read more about Jessica’s inspiring story.

The Santa Rosa Junior College Gateway to College program sees dozens of students like Jessica each semester walk through their doors. Launching the program in fall of 2013, the college has served more than 100 formerly dropped out high school students over the past two years. A valued member of the Gateway to College National Network Presidents’ Circle, Santa Rosa Junior College is committed to helping disconnected youth in Petaluma County achieve their dreams of education and brighter futures.


Presidents’ Circle membership supports groundbreaking partnerships between colleges and local school districts. Every dollar contributed to Gateway to College National Network leverages $11 in school district funding to support a Gateway student earning her diploma AND college credits. Please join us in celebrating and supporting Santa Rosa Junior College and Gateway to College programs across the nation this fall during the Give Change campaign.

Learn how you can get involved here!

New Legislation Opens Door for Struggling Students to Access College

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Earlier in the month, California Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill 288, which correctly suggests that dual-enrollment in college courses can be an effective intervention for youth at risk of dropping out of high school. Introduced by Chris Holden of Pasadena, this legislation fosters the development of College and Career Access Pathways partnerships. The new law addresses dual enrollment for high school students, an existing but still under-utilized strategy in California. In calling for the creation of new partnerships between community colleges and school districts, AB 288 does two important things for California students: it eases current restrictions and it challenges communities to broaden dual enrollment opportunities. It eases restrictions on dual enrollment so students participating in College and Career Access Pathways can enroll in up to 15 credits, or four college courses per semester, at no cost (currently, students are limited to 11 credits). This is a benefit to students enrolled in college-based early college programs, as it can increase their progress toward high school graduation as well as their ability to complete more post-secondary credits by the time they earn a diploma. 

What may be even more important about AB 288 is its language that challenges colleges and school districts to use dual enrollment in order to serve the most vulnerable students: Dual enrollment has historically targeted high-achieving students; however, increasingly, educators and policymakers are looking toward dual enrollment as a strategy to help students who struggle academically or who are at risk of dropping out.” (AB 288, 2015) Because dual enrollment has the greatest net benefit for students who would have otherwise not made the transition to postsecondary education, this language has potential to prompt the creation of many more transformative programs for off-track and out-of-school youth in California. “California should rethink its policies governing dual enrollment, and establish a policy framework under which school districts and community college districts could create dual enrollment partnerships as one strategy to provide critical support for underachieving students…” (AB 288, 2015) 

We know that these partnerships will be effective, because a handful of communities have forged ahead. Gateway to College programs already serve previously out-of-school and off-track students in seven California communities. Developing additional College and Career Access Pathway partnerships will provide precisely the type of intervention needed to prepare off-track and out-of-school youth for success as they enter the workforce.

Over the past two years, California has made meaningful investments in educational equity (LCCF, and Student Success Act of 2012, and career and college readiness via the California Career Pathways Trust ( While AB 288 has a modest scope both fiscally and technically, it does take a critical step toward combining the equity agenda and career pathway agenda. The Assembly is correct that educators and policymakers are looking to the potential power of dual enrollment and it opens a door which many students, communities, and other states can and should walk through. 

Who Graduates? Who Drops Out? High School Graduation Rates and Opportunity

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Just 81% of young people who entered the 9th grade in 2009 graduated within four years. While this represents significant progress in raising the national graduation rate, there is still work to be done. About 1 out of 5 high school-aged students do not graduate on time. This equates to approximately 2.7 million 16 to 24 year-olds out of school and without a high school diploma. Among this student population are disproportionate numbers of students of color, economically disadvantaged youth, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.

The high school diploma, while a vital step in earning an education, is not enough in today’s economy to ensure a self-sustaining career. For those who are unable to pursue education beyond earning their diploma, career opportunities are limited. The unemployment rate for individuals with only a diploma is nearly triple that of individuals who hold a Bachelor’s degree.

Gateway to College National Network partners with school districts, colleges, and communities to provide a pathway to a high school diploma and meaningful postsecondary credentials. Please join us in supporting Gateway students on this journey. Give Change, and give a second chance

Nudging Students Toward Success

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

By Devora Shamah

For adolescents, academics happen in between rushing to class, negotiating friendships, managing work shifts, sports o­r clubs, and ultimately figuring out how school fits into who you are now and who you want to become or avoid becoming. For students who have struggled academically, the busyness that is teen life can be even more challenging. Creating school environments that allow youth to shift their understanding of school away from prior and feared future failures and toward future successes requires addressing both academics and social emotional skills within a supportive school environment.

School environments that support students are built by instructors and administrators. Good instructors who are accessible and passionate about their subject matter are important, as are staff members who greet students by name and make it clear that they know students as individuals. Advisors who reach out to students who are falling short and notice the achievements of students who become successful contribute to a warm, supportive school environment as well. But, sometimes even the best faculty watch students struggle. Often the tendency is to assume these students are unmotivated, don’t care enough about their education, or are unwilling to take on a challenge. Fortunately, motivation and mindsets are malleable characteristics[i]. To support students in building motivation around school or a mindset that makes challenges appealing the answers lie not in the content, but in the larger classroom and campus environments. Brief interventions that shift mindsets, build motivation, or make failure a normative part of learning utilize decades of research to nudge students toward success.

Some (here and here) have critiqued these brief interventions as shortcuts and/or ways to ignore the effects of poverty, family responsibilities, or other barriers beyond a student’s control. It is absolutely true that a set of lessons on the neuroscience of learning, a workshop on new strategies for studying, or a set of activities to build motivation will not solve the societal issues of our time. And the critics are right to bring attention to bigger issues that create unnecessary struggles for students. However, young people cannot wait for society to solve inequality, racism, or inconsistent schools. They need ways to engage with their education today, so they have the opportunity to earn the meaningful credentials needed to achieve their goals, support their families, and take their place as contributing community members.

Interventions around growth mindset[ii]  and identity-based motivation[iii] are both examples of social-psychological interventions. Social-psychological interventions essentially work because they utilize what psychologists know about how we all make decisions, and they nudge youth to make small decisions that move them closer to success[iv]. These nudges help youth put education at the center of who they want to become instead of defining who they were, what Daphna Oyserman[v] refers to as an education-dependent identity. Oyserman notes, identity-based motivation interventions suggest a variety of motivational paths, each of which has the power to frame how students make sense of their experiences of ease and difficulty, whether they see current choices as connected to or irrelevant from their possible future selves, and whether they embrace strategies to get there or not.

We know many young people struggle with a host of challenges beyond their control: illness, mental health issues, poverty, parenting, and the list goes on. Implementing brief interventions of any kind won’t make these issues go away. However, social-psychological interventions have solid evidence behind them and improve outcomes[vi].  In concert with good teaching and supportive staff, social-psychological interventions are useful for students (and teachers) to increase motivation, think about learning, struggle with difficult problems, and ultimately help them make sense of their academic work.

At Gateway to College, students rarely attribute their struggles to the academic work or requirements. Tutoring, study groups, and excellent instructors are already in place at the community colleges Gateway to College students attend. What students do need in addition to their academic work is the opportunity to figure out why school matters to what they want to do, to build an identity as a successful student, and make all the small decisions that are necessary to keep them in school. Social-psychological interventions use the same psychology that marketers use.  If educators can harness the same power that gets us to the mall in order to help students skip the snooze button, do their homework instead of going out with friends, rework a challenging problem again, and attend study workshops on campus, more students will have the skills and support they need to achieve the degrees and credentials they aspire to.

Additional Reading

Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework

Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic

Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’

Pathways to Success Through Identity-Based Motivation

[i] Covington, M. (2000). Goal theory, motivation, and school achievement: An integrative review. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 171–200.; Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.; Oyserman, D. (2009). Identity-based motivation: Implications for action-readiness, procedural-readiness, and consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19(3), 250–260.

[ii] Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

[iii] Oyserman, D. (2015). Pathways to success through identity-based motivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[iv] Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301.

[v] Oyserman, D. (2015). Pathways to success through identity-based motivation. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

[vi] Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101.; Dweck, C. S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39.; Oyserman, D., & Destin, M. (2010). Identity-Based Motivation: Implications for Intervention. The Counseling Psychologist.; Yeager, D. & Walton, G. (2011). Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301.; Yeager, D., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2013). Addressing achievement gaps with psychological Interventions. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(5), 62–65.


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