I don’t know President-Elect Biden’s choice for U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona,
but from what I have read, he is a man sincerely interested in helping low-income students get to
and through college. If that is true, I’d love for him to come visit us at Geo Academies in Gary, Indiana where our students are beating the odds before they graduate from high school.
I would introduce him to our student Erin who earned her college associate degree as a high school sophomore and will be five credits away from her bachelor’s before she graduates from our high school in May. Or, perhaps he would like to meet Arianna and Brianna who completed their associate degrees as juniors in our high school (during COVID). Or Lisa, Trinity, and (a different) Arianna who are doing it as seniors this year. All six of these young ladies are earning college degrees, at no cost to them, on the campuses of Ivy Tech, Indiana University Northwest and Purdue Northwest while in high school in Gary, Indiana. And they are not alone. Indeed, 71% of our Class of 2021 will have at least one year of college and/or a career certification prior to graduating from high school. This is a big deal in a city where fewer than 15% of residences are home to a college graduate.
While we are excited for these students, and I hope Cardona would be equally excited, we want
to see more high school students across the country earn associate degrees—two full years of
college—while in high school. If we can do this in Gary, Indiana, the rest of the country can,
So how can Cardona help?
First, he can help people understand that money for college is not the issue.
The federal government invests annually in supporting low-income students earning college
degrees and most recently provided $28 billion in Pell Grants—free college money.
But did this investment pay off? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only
about 53 percent of Pell Grant recipients complete college within six years of their high school
We should expect 100% success if money alone is the issue. It isn’t. Obstacles to Pell Grant recipients—students with family incomes of $60,000 or less–completing college extend way beyond financial challenges. In our Gary, Indiana school, 90 percent of the families we serve have no college experience or degree in the home. Many families don’t expect their students to go to college, in fact, many families encourage their children to drop out of high school to get a job and start helping to pay the family bills. We can’t ignore these realities. Most of our students arrived with no plans or aspirations of higher education.
If the Biden administration wants to improve college going and completion rates, we must go beyond our existing “free money” efforts and encourage stronger links between higher-ed institutions, high schools and families.
Families may not have college experience, but they do provide room and board, one of the
biggest hurdles to students attending and completing college. High school students can take
college classes while they are living at home and enjoy not having to worry about a place to
sleep or eat.
High schools already believe students can do more as they offer many “college prep”
opportunities such as IB, AP, and on-high school campus dual credit classes. But low-income
students are vastly underrepresented in these classes. High schools need to add “on college
campus” classes for Pell grant qualified students, now. Why?
First generation and low-income college-bound students need support to get acclimated to the
college campus and higher expectations. High schools have staff who can help students navigate
the college campus, counselors, course choices, and monitor and support class work. This helps
strengthen student confidence and increases college completion odds.
Cardona can help the nation’s low-income students get a jump start on college by accelerating
access to Pell Grants for students who qualify and allow them access to these dollars while they
are in high school. This will not increase costs to the country. It simply speeds up access and
allows for qualified students to start taking college courses while still receiving support from
their families and their high school. High school staff can provide academic and social and
emotional supports and they can help with transportation, textbook and computer supports, too.
Will this work? Our Gary, Indiana school serves as a promising lab for this idea and tells us that yes, it will work.
Although none of our students receive early access to Pell Grants, we made the decision to spend
K12 dollars on college expenses for our students. We leverage existing family supports, existing
family-provided room and board, our existing high school transportation system and staff to
provide academic and social and emotional supports to provide students real on-college campus
experience and the opportunity to earn real college credits. It’s working.
Indeed, our high school population is 100% minority and qualified for the federal lunch program,
(certainly qualified for Pell Grants) and our graduation rate is nearly 100 percent (compared to nearby West Side High’s 62 percent.) Every year many of our students earn full associate degrees—two years of college—while in our high school. Erin will be close to earning her bachelor’s degree from Purdue before graduating from our high school (our second student to accomplish this feat in four years).
What higher education institution wouldn’t want to have their students entering college more
self-disciplined, mature, experienced and confident in their abilities to finish college? Cardona
can start building his legacy on day one if he gets to work right away to accelerate access to Pell
Grant dollars, and works to create stronger partnerships between higher ed, high schools and
families. I stand ready to assist him and his team to get this done.