Moving the needle on success for low-income students
Originally published at The Houston Chronicle
By Jerry Greenwald and Benjamin Castleman
Aug. 11, 2018
In a few short weeks, millions of low-income students will return to high school, college or a vocational institution to continue their progress toward college and career. Too few of these students will have the supports they need to make it across the graduation stage. According to National Center for Educational Statistics data, only 43 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate with bachelor’s degrees compared to 80 percent of higher-income students.
Thousands of organizations work hard to ensure low-income students, who are considered economically disadvantaged based on federal income thresholds, gain access to and complete a postsecondary education. Some organizations help low-income youth navigate the burdensome financial aid process. Others provide mentors who support students academically, socially and emotionally. All work to overcome decades of persistent, widening inequalities in postsecondary outcomes.
Despite these laudable efforts, we know very little about which organizations are having a positive impact. And we know even less about which organizations have the capacity to scale their model beyond the communities they serve. For each program that has been rigorously evaluated, there are hundreds that have all the best intentions of helping students but may not actually be moving the needle on assuring more low-income youth complete a college or vocational degree.
And so the question for education policymakers, funders and leaders is how we can effectively distinguish programs that work from those that don’t — and then support the effective programs to scale and reach more low-income students across the country.
Prize competitions are a promising strategy to identify the solutions we need — and an increasingly common strategy in education. The Early Childhood Innovation Prize elevated Acelero Learning’s next-generation, adaptive child assessment system as a platform to personalize learning pathways for young students. The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools recently awarded $250,000 to Denver-based DSST Public Schools, a system that is substantially closing academic achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color.
We believe the same approach can help identify exciting, innovative programs that have proven to boost college and vocational success for all youth. That led us to create the first-ever Evergreen National Education Prize earlier this month, which will award $125,000 annually to an organization that is driving postsecondary education and economic success for low-income students. The Evergreen Prize has a dual focus: recognizing a program that has a proven track record of improving college or vocational outcomes for low-income youth — and supporting the winning program so it can scale to reach its more deserving students.
The Prize money itself is only part of the solution. By shining a spotlight on the winning organization, we hope that other organizations will adopt similar approaches to support low-income students toward college and workforce success. One expectation we make of applicants is that they are willing to take an “open source” approach, disseminating what they see as the key programmatic components underlying their model’s success to communities and organizations across the country.
More broadly, our hope is that the attention and publicity we can bring to the Evergreen Prize and the Prize winner will encourage other organizations to continue innovating in this space. We envision that the Prize will spur programs that are already working to improve college and workforce outcomes for low-income youth to rigorously evaluate the impacts their programs are having.
Our ultimate aspiration is that just as prize competitions have identified best-in-class organizations at other points in students’ educational journeys, the Evergreen Prize will call attention to organizations that are driving greater postsecondary opportunity for low-income youth.
Greenwald is chairman of the Evergreen Prize, co-founder of Greenbriar Equity Group and former CEO of United Airlines. Castleman is managing director of the Evergreen Prize, associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at UVA.