Although high school graduation rates have risen in recent years to all-time highs, the nation’s college graduation rate remains far lower than graduates of our nation’s top colleges might assume.

According to the Department of Education, 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students graduate within six years. Nearly 37 million citizens in the U.S. have attended some college but have no degree to show for it.

The picture is far bleaker for low-income students. Among students in the bottom-income quartile, the graduation rate is a shocking 8 percent.

Yet the benefits of graduating from college are big. Despite a small decline in recent years, college graduates can still expect to earn roughly a million more dollars than high school graduates over their lifetimes.

As a result, many of the charter school networks that serve low-income students have obsessed about making sure their students attend—and graduate from—a four-year college.

Over the last several years, as the older charter networks have been able to track how their alums fare in college, they hit a bit of a stumbling block. Although the vast majority of their students did go to college and although many more were graduating from college relative to other low-income students nationwide, many were not successfully making it through four-year colleges.

In 2011, for example, the KIPP charter school network revealed that, of those who were old enough to be eligible, 33 percent of its 8th-grade graduates had graduated from a four-year college. Given that KIPP serves a predominantly low-income population, this number was remarkably four times the national average. But it was far lower than the goal KIPP had set for itself to make sure its students got to and then successfully through college.

The sector began to ask some serious questions about how to better support their graduates. Six years later, three dominant approaches seem to have materialized with some networks using a mix of all three.

1) Take the training wheels off

Many charter networks focused on serving low-income students have deployed versions of a so-called “no excuses” strategy in which they will do anything to make sure students are successful by surrounding them with all the supports they need.

Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in Silicon Valley in California, had elements of this model. By 2011, the network had achieved national acclaim. Newsweek listed one of its schools as one of the top ten most transformational high schools in America, and its schools consistently outperformed their peers on California’s Academic Performance Index (API). But that fall, the network’s leaders decided to make a change. They were concerned about data that showed that although nearly all of Summit’s students had gone on to a four-year college, 55 percent were graduating. Although that was far higher than the national average relative to the students they were serving, the fact that some students were struggling when they arrived at college caused Summit’s leaders to rethink its model. One thing they noticed among their alums was that once they arrived in college, there were very few supports in place to help make sure they graduated. For the first time, their alums were being asked to truly learn on their own and figure out how to navigate their school’s requirements largely by themselves. Summit’s leaders realized that while the network’s extensive supports helped students get to college, perhaps those same supports did them a disservice once they were in college.

The leaders began thinking about ways to design a set of experiences that better prepared students with the content knowledge, cognitive skills, habits of success, and real-world practice necessary to thrive in college and beyond with a critical eye toward ensuring that students would, over time, own more and more of their daily and weekly learning decisions and goal-setting. They designed a model that incorporated blended and competency-based learning such that students would have to figure out how to manage their own time and become lifelong learners capable of handling unfamiliar and unsupportive settings. Early signs are that the strategy is paying positive dividends.

2) Support students through college

Although KIPP has also focused on building student’s so-called non-cognitive skills so that they would be successful in college and life, the network has also focused on directly providing supports for its alums in college. KIPP’s “KIPP Through College” provides its graduates with alumni coaches and counselors to help them navigate the academic, social and financial challenges they may face with an eye toward making sure students have a purpose, passion and plan; focus on their academics; network and navigate to build a strong team around them; be financially fit; and know who they are.

Today 80 percent of KIPP’s students start college, and 38 percent complete a four-year college degree. An additional 5 percent earn an associate’s degree.

3) Create a better college

With college graduation rates so low, some charter networks are asking if maybe the problem isn’t with their former students but with the colleges themselves. Accordingly, they are essentially vertically integrating into post-secondary education themselves to reinvent college.

This vertical integration is smart. It’s what all organizations in any sector must do when an adjacent stage in the value chain is not yet good enough or well understood enough such that it limits what the organization can deliver. In the early days of the mainframe computer industry, for example, IBM could not have existed as an independent manufacturer of mainframe computers because manufacturing was unpredictably interdependent with the design process for the machines, as well as the operating systems, core memory, and logic circuitry. IBM, therefore, had to integrate through all of the parts of the value chain of its production that were not yet well understood and established in order to succeed in the manufacture and sale of mainframe computers.

Charter networks trying to make sure their students are successful in the world, not just high school, may have to do something similar the argument goes. The soft skills necessary to be successful lifelong learners are not well understood enough such that they are easy to measure, and the supports necessary to succeed in college may be too difficult to anticipate at arm’s length.

Accordingly, charter networks like Match Education in Boston and Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles are bringing their approach to schooling to college. They are combining with Southern New Hampshire University’s online, competency-based College for America to offer a degree that is accessible and affordable and brings a “no excuses” mindset with its blended, on-ground experience that connects students to jobs in the Boston and LA regions. Although there have been lots of potentially disruptive innovations launched in higher education before, these examples represent the first combination of a disruptive positioning with a “no excuses” mindset that says all students will succeed. And the early results are promising.

As all three approaches evolve in the years ahead, what’s clear is that educators are no longer standing on the sidelines content with a college experience that has failed too many students for too long. That’s a welcome development.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.