college completion

Getting students INTO college is no longer good enough

For a state with some of the best colleges and universities, Massachusetts has a serious college completion gap among low income and minority students.

His first arrest was at age 11, when he was caught stealing a bike from Toys R Us. The years that followed were spent cycling in and out of prison, as well as in out of community-based programs that were trying to reach him. But it was College Bound Dorchester’s Bridge to College program that reversed Gio’s course in life, and today he is enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College.

“College is key,” says Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester. “The individual success helps break the cycle, bringing a positive ripple effect to the neighborhoods.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, college graduates earn 66% more than those with a high school diploma. And by 2020, an estimated two-thirds of jobs in the US will require post-secondary education and training.

Yet Massachusetts, a state known for its world-class colleges and universities, is facing a significant gap in college completion rates among low-income and minority students. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, just 46% of black students graduated in four years from public college in Massachusetts in 2013, compared to 64% of white students. And the Boston Globe reported last month that only 15 percent of low-income students earn a post-secondary credential within six years of graduating high school.

The good news? There are a growing number of programs and initiatives from community-based organizations, funders and government that are not only helping low-income students get into college, but are also providing the necessary supports to ensure they stay in school and earn their degree.


United Way partners with 30 community-based organizations working to provide students with the necessary academic and social supports to be ready for college and to succeed. These organizations serve approximately 2,500 students annually.

Sociedad Latina’s Acceleration Academy provides students who are going into 11th grade with an intensive summer program where they can learn the skills necessary to pursue college and careers.

In Dorchester, College Bound provides college preparation programming and support in college for students aged 17 to 27. Their programs boast a 60% college retention rate and currently serve more than 500 students, building their confidence and motivation, providing academic support to ensure they are ready for college-level classes, offering pathways to those who have not completed high school, and offering supportive services like early education to help young parents succeed in education. College Bound Dorchester is also seeing a 71% drop in recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend), an indicator that the cycle is truly being broken.

“Colleges are not set up for students like Gio,” Culliton says. “We need to help them through it. Colleges have resources, but we have to help guide them. To stay in college they need the right supports. When they succeed, they graduate.”


The City of Boston has made significant progress on college completion rates of students graduating from Boston Public Schools since 2000. According to The Boston Foundation, overall college completion rates for BPS graduates have risen from 35% for the BPS class of 2000 to over 51% for the class of 2009.

Coaching is among the strategies proving successful in increasing these college completion rates. A new Success Boston report shows that coached students are more likely to attend their second and third years of college and have higher grade point averages than students who did not received this targeted support.

We have seen this first hand through United Way’s Marian L. Heard Scholars program, in which coaching is a key component. In addition to receiving a $10,000 scholarship, each scholar is paired with an e-Coach, a virtual mentor who offers advice and encouragement throughout their four years – through frequent emails as well as meeting in person. United Way currently has 47 active e-Coaches providing guidance and support to students, most of whom are the first generation in their families to attend college.

MLH college completion

The 2016 class of Marian L. Heard Scholars


No single e-Coach or nonprofit organization on its own could affect the kind of large scale change needed to improve these numbers.

Governor Baker recently awarded $1.2 million in grants to state universities and community college for innovative programs geared toward college access and completion. Funds will, among other measures, support programs that provide opportunities for high school students to take college-level courses while they are still in high school.

“Exposing high school students to college-level material and allowing them to earn credit for their work is a worthy investment in both our students and future workforce,” said Governor Charlie Baker in a statement. The Baker administration also notes national research demonstrates that students who take college courses before graduating from high school are more likely to avoid the need for remedial coursework in their first year of college, increasing the likelihood they will earn degrees instead of dropping out.

In today’s increasingly competitive workforce, young people with degrees and skills are in high demand. Students who are the first in their families to attend college, as well as low-income students who have overcome incredible obstacles to get there, often need support during their first year to navigate challenges and access the resources they need to succeed. By preparing them for college and providing coaching and other supports to these students, we will create change that can help break the cycle of poverty in their families and communities.