A dorm at UT Dallas

Education

Are Texas’ Public Universities Failing Their Dropout-Risk Students?

Dallas nonprofit ScholarShot thinks so. And it just got a grant to prove it.

On Thursday, the Communities Foundation of Texas announced a new slate of grants from its W.W. Caruth Jr. Fund. On that list: ScholarShot, a Dallas-based nonprofit whose model serves to turn a troubling truth about Texas education on its head. In the Lone Star State, nine out of 10 low-income, first generation kids who enroll in college drop out. But with support from ScholarShot, which has a team of full-time employed academic managers, nearly all of them end up graduating or earning associates or vocational degrees.

But now the organization wants to attack the problem from another angle. ScholarShot will spin the $187,500 grant on accountability research, examining how well the state’s public universities support these students who are at high-risk for dropping out. The research will be published as a report card, with schools rating A through F, and ScholarShot Executive Director Dan Hooper is hopeful that it could have an impact on high school advisers and policy makers alike. I got Hooper on the phone for a few minutes Thursday to talk about the new effort.

Why is this an important area to study?

For two primary reasons. No. 1, there’s a lack of knowledge among college advisers in high school about what schools are engaging first generation kids and what schools are not. Right now, the advisement is all based on—go to the best school you got into. Nine out of 10 low-income, first generation kids that enroll in college in Texas drop out. The root cause is bad advisement from high school.

And then the second leading cause is that universities are hungry for the kids’ grants and load them up with loans but most of them make no investment in seeing them succeed. So we want to bring the public’s attention and legislators’ attention to which schools are worthy of getting $350 million a year from Texas taxpayers in the form of grants and which schools are not.

You would like to believe that once an at-risk kid has gotten themselves into college, that’s it. They’ve beaten the odds and set themselves up for a better life. Why is that not always the case?

In Texas, we’re very generous about college access. So the top 10 percent—or if you’re in an underperforming high school, the top 25 percent—are guaranteed a seat at a four-year school. We need to be sending these kids to schools hat actually help a first-generation, low-income kid get a degree as oppose to those that just take their grants.

What is the college’s role in helping these students stick around to graduation?

That’s the rub, right there. The colleges basically say, hey, it’s the high school’s responsibility to educate these kids. And the high schools say, well, once we graduate them they’re not our issue. And there’s really no organized or coordinated handoff for kids going to college.

So is it a matter of providing more services to ease the transition?

For example, every public university has classroom management software, but our research shows that less than a third of them use that as an early alert to say, “Shawn slept through two classes this week,” or “Dan flunked his first quiz. Go bang on their door, get them in for advisement.” Most of the college advisers, first of all, are greatly outnumbered—3,000, up to 6,000, students to every one counselor. And more importantly, the model is built on kids who self-advocate for themselves.

If you’re a first-generation kid, you don’t have that model for advocating for yourself. You’ve survived life in a fight or flight mode. The thought of sticking up for yourself is just not in your skill set. There are schools like UNT Dallas, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Texas State University is now starting some initiatives—they’re going to come bang on your door and pull you out of your dorm and say, hey, you need to be in advisement or you need tutoring to continue here. The big schools, their attitude is, look, if you drop out I’ve got 10 kids waiting to get in. I’m not that concerned about it. And they’ll talk about their programs, but they don’t have, really, measurable results.

You all have had success sort of flipping the nine out of 10 statistic on its head. How have you been able to do that?

The most impactful effort of ScholarShot is a full-time manager at a ratio of 50 students to every one academic manager. Those academic managers are everything from the agitated parent to the financial adviser to the degree planner holding kids accountable. That’s the leading contributor to our 96 percent degree success rate. We know the public universities can’t afford that but they can do much more than they currently are doing to improve outcomes of the kids they enroll.

When do we get our first look at which colleges are helping students along and which aren’t?

We’re planning to publish our first Texas public university report card in October of this year. It’ll be an A through F grading based on measures of do you have debt management for your students? What ratio of student to scholar do you operate with? Do you have early alert systems for kids that are off track? All the way through to what are your completion rates and what are your enrollment rates?

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