Group of Grads

Opinion

What’s Working: Two Key Levers for Improving College Grad Rates

Dr. Garland Thomas-McDavid

This public charter school in Chicago encourages students to do two things to increase their odds of graduating from college: Raise their GPAs and attend colleges with 50 percent or higher graduation rates for underrepresented minorities.

North Lawndale College Prep High School (NLCP) is an open-enrollment charter school on Chicago’s west side with a clear mission: to prepare students for college completion. We achieve this by supporting each child on the journey to college graduation.Many NLCP students go on to become the first in their families to attend and graduate from college. 

Yet the school’s postsecondary success data from 2014 indicated some troubling trends—and provided eye-opening insight that became the impetus for a groundbreaking transformation. 

Data showed that not all NLCP students were completing college at the same rates. The differences in completion were clearly related to GPA and institutional graduation rates—two critical levers for college success. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium) found that student GPA is a better predictor of college success than test scores, in part because grades capture many of the vital habits that test scores miss, such as executive functioning, academic perseverance, grit, and a growth mindset.

UChicago Consortium research has also revealed that a student’s likelihood of graduating from a given college mirrors a college’s institutional graduation rate, regardless of an individual student’s academic qualifications. 

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NLCP High School student D'Angelo McDade (center) is heading to DePauw University this fall. Also pictured: Dr. Thomas-McDavid (left), NLCP Director of Academics Erin Simunovic, and teacher John Ehresman.

NLCP students with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher were finishing college at a rate of 60 percent, whereas students in the 2.5 to 2.9 GPA range were completing their degrees at only half that rate. However, at colleges with a 50 percent or higher graduation rate for underrepresented minorities, which NLCP dubs “Success Colleges,” NLCP’s graduates were excelling: 65 percent of them had successfully earned degrees. 

Conversely, students’ odds of success were much lower at colleges with institutional graduation rates below 50 percent. At these schools, only 36 percent of NLCP graduates earned a college degree. Even more eye-opening was the fact that students who graduated from high school with a 3.0 GPA and attended a Success College were even more likely to succeed: 81 percent made it through college. 

Raising GPAs and Increasing Attendance at “Success Colleges”

The data told a compelling and actionable story that catalyzed NLCP’s efforts to improve its graduates’ postsecondary attainment. NLCP developed strategic plans and partnerships to improve GPAs and increase attendance at Success Colleges. Specifically, NLCP worked to instill the importance of maintaining a 3.0 GPA (at minimum) and attending colleges with institutional graduation rates greater than 50 percent among students and staff members.

Through aggressive fundraising, an endowment was secured to launch The Phoenix Pact, which ensures that NLCP students with a 3.0 or higher GPA who enroll at a designated Success College can attend without any out-of-pocket costs. Colleges and universities that are part of the Phoenix Pact commit to eliminating the financial barriers that can limit options and hinder success for students with strong GPAs—even those with lackluster college entrance exam scores. 

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Since its founding in 2015, the Phoenix Pact has made it possible for hundreds of NLCP alumni to enroll in Success Colleges. Today, the Phoenix Pact has 32 participating colleges and universities that partner with NLCP to admit and support NLCP graduates through last dollar scholarships, robust partnerships, and strategic counseling. 

NLCP also leverages counselors, collaboration, and a variety of resources to support students’ postsecondary strivings. An alumni fellow, a college graduate who attended school at NLCP, is responsible for tracking, communicating with, and problem-solving on behalf of alumni throughout their collegiate careers. Students can and do reach back to their NLCP home to receive real support and monetary aide to help them persist in their studies.

The Importance of Data

By paying attention to key research indicators, examining school-specific data, and launching an actionable plan of intervention, NLCP moved the needle for its students. When NLCP began its postsecondary work, only 10 percent of eligible students were choosing Success Colleges. Of the 85 students in the class of 2015 who graduated with a 3.0 or higher, about 50 percent enrolled in a Success College and, today, a whopping 85 percent of NLCP’s class of 2018 has a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0 and plans to enroll in a Success College that is part of the Phoenix Pact. 

This could not have happened without the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research that illuminates key levers for improving students’ outcomes. Their research assisted our teams in facilitating a notable culture shift around the importance of GPA and institutional graduation rates when evaluating college options. 

It also couldn’t have happened without data on students’ attainment of key milestones along the path to and through college that the University of Chicago’s To&Through Project provides. Frederick Douglass said, “The road to freedom is paved with education,” and it remains true today. By making college graduation feasible for our students, NLCP is creating access to the ideals our country was founded on—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.