Presidential 2016: Activating America’s High School Students is Key to Improving Post-Secondary Attainment

Thanks to the persistence of social innovators across the country, every day we see strategies that are working and delivering results in a rapidly changing world. This ongoing blog series will highlight the voices of our Coalition of 70+ social innovators and their innovative solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems, as well as examples of how this powerful work can be transformed into national change. Today we will hear from Keith Frome, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of College Summit, about the power of student voices and peer engagement in improving college enrollment rates.

This blog post was authored by Keith Frome, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of College Summit.

The inequity in college attainment has become the civil rights issue of our time. From 2008 to 2013, college enrollment rates among low-income students have dropped by 10%. Moreover, in 1970, 6% of low-income students completed college. In 2013, that number grew to only 9%. So in three decades, even with complex and expensive interventions taking place, we have unsatisfactorily moved the dial. As educators, we work amidst millions of lives yet to be transformed and are humbled by how much more work there is to be done.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) made historic progress towards establishing a more equitable educational equilibrium, including the inclusion of language requiring state report cards to include post-secondary enrollment rates by high school. This not only helps students and families make more informed education decisions, but affirms the post-secondary purpose of the American high school. This clause will also hold school districts and their partners accountable to graduating more students who enroll in post-secondary education, which is still the gateway to career success and the chance to lead a fulfilling life. For more than a decade, College Summit, using a data warehouse developed by Deloitte, measured the college enrollment rates of our partner high schools, using the results as the north star for the organization and its partner high schools. I can tell you that without this data, we would not have been able to meaningfully manage the students through their college navigational milestones. We are thrilled that this data will now be available for all high schools across the country, as knowing where you are is fundamental to getting to where you want to go.


College Summit is now uniquely positioned to leverage this new, transparent environment. We have developed a strategy to activate a dormant asset – the students themselves – who, research and practice have demonstrated, can drive achievement not just for themselves individually but for all of their classmates. Too often, school reform efforts operate from a deficit point of view. Under-resourced communities were seen as lacking services, staff, technology, curriculum, analytics, data, cash, etc. Schools were viewed like a slice of Swiss cheese, full of holes needing filling. And while the basic insight was correct – there is indeed an unequal distribution of financial and social capital in our educational system – emphasizing deficits distracted us from the mosaic of assets that schools possess.

One of these assets is already roaming the hallways of America’s high schools, and research continues to support the theory that the essential element of a robust college going culture is a humming peer-to-peer network.

I am witnessing an awakening to this fact as our field is beginning to embrace the urgency of student engagement as a necessary ingredient for school and career success. There are three foci in the emerging student engagement movement: (1) student voice, where students are design partners and programmatic decision makers; (2) student agency, where students own their personal achievement, developing mastery through a combination of non-cognitive skills and personalized learning pathways; and (3) student influence, where students assist their classmates to achieve, recognizing that they have the power and the responsibility to work on behalf of their classmates.

While student voice and agency are essential, the efficacy of student influence needs more recognition and systematic utilization. Sometimes our partner schools don’t always believe us at first. Before running a recent pilot, we asked staff, “Can a team of eight high school peer leaders influence the number of students who complete a college application?” and only 42% of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed. After implementation, 94% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed. A staff member of Detroit Edison Public School Academy told us: “The students trained by College Summit have made such a difference in our school. Watching them work with the rest of the students—almost as surrogate counselors—has made me understand what a valuable resource I have. They have created a real culture of college-going.”

The College Summit team believes so much in the transformative power of high school juniors and seniors guiding their peers to higher education we have decided to focus exclusively on developing and deploying these peer leaders in our partner schools, with the aim of placing 1,000 peer leader teams in 1,000 high schools in the coming decade.

There are hundreds of urban and rural high schools where I am privileged to observe students lead their classmates to college. I’ve seen students lock the senior class in a gym until they have completed their state college applications. When college representatives refused to come to a high school, I saw a group of students themselves represent the colleges in the cafeteria. In rural Florida, I watched a team of 11th and 12th grades run an assembly for 1500 students like it was a revival meeting, exhorting the entire school to commit to going to college. And I’ve seen a team of 12th graders help reduce their school’s 9th grade dropout rates by adopting and coaching at-risk first-year high school students to envision their personal purpose and stay in school.

I look forward to a day when every high school principal believes that his or her school must have a student engagement strategy in order to close the achievement gap. My colleague, Kathryn Barnes, calls this energy “selfless advocacy,” and it aligns with the current thinking on perseverance, where one of the hallmarks of grit is the belief that one’s endeavors serve a greater mission. Ramon Gomez, a 2010 College Summit peer leader from Inglewood High in Los Angeles, who graduated from UCLA, sums this mindset up best. Now out of college, he still aims, in his words, “to embody” the mission of “giving all students from all backgrounds the opportunity to obtain a higher education” so that young people can, again in Ramon’s words, “realize how golden you truly are.”

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It is crucial for the next administration to recognize that student engagement – voice, agency, and influence – are a necessary part of the solution to the problem of educational inequity in our country. Researchers like Laurence Steinberg of Temple University and Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas have demonstrated that students have the greatest influence over their school culture, especially when they assist each other. Crosnoe has persuasively argued that it is this form of what he calls “instrumental assistance” that holds the most promise for practice and public policy because students can be deliberately organized, empowered and coached to work on behalf of their classmates. I urge the next administration to make it priority that every high school – no matter the zip code – assembles a team of students to partner with its educators to ensure that all students are college and career ready.

Read more about how social innovators in the America Forward Coalition, like College Summit, are solving America’s biggest problems in communities across the country every day in our briefing book, Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential, and join the conversation. Follow @CollegeSummit and @America_Forward, and tell us how high school students are driving achievement through peer engagement in your community using #AFPresidential16.

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