What it takes to make “college for all” more than a motto

Most successful public charter schools are aiming to get their students into college and graduate with at least a bachelor’s degree. At Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools, one of the nation’s top-performing charter networks, Matt Niksch’s (The Broad Residency 2009-2011) entire job revolves around that effort.

As Noble’s chief college officer, Matt works tirelessly with school principals and college counselors to ensure every student has a solid, detailed plan and support system for applying and getting into college, but also for managing the day-to-day of college once they get there — plans for things like buying books or arranging transportation to make it to class, on time, every day. “They may seem insignificant, but we’ve found that sometimes it’s the small things that can prevent kids from being successful,” Matt said.

And given that fewer than 1 in 10 low-income college students nationwide actually graduate within six years, Noble is doing everything it can to leave nothing to chance. In addition to the rigorous academic environment at Noble, Matt and his team collect extensive amounts of data on their alumni to identify what students need to persist in college and what barriers they face on the road to success. As a result, each Noble high school has anywhere from two to five employees dedicated to giving their students high-touch support throughout the application, entrance and transition processes to college.

What Matt’s work has also found is that these efforts can’t be about getting their students into just any college. Finding the right-fit campus for each young person is key. But that can be easier said than done:

  • Undermatching — when highly capable students (typically first-generation, low-income students and students of color) choose to enroll at less-selective colleges — is an all-too-common practice that stacks the deck against student success.
  • While some argue that low-income students of color receive preferential treatment in the college admissions process, a recent analysis by The New York Times suggests that the enrollment of Black and Hispanic students at America’s elite colleges has remained unchanged for the past 35 years.
  • At the same time, similar colleges serving similar student bodies can produce wildly different graduation rates, underscoring the role the institution itself must play in student success.

That’s why Matt and his team created a ‘bot that helps Noble students identify a list of institutions where they have the best chance to succeed. And once those students have been accepted to college, Noble’s alumni coordinators stay in close contact with them, so they don’t get cold feet over the summer or lose faith if they begin to struggle once they are in class.

All of this effort is paying off: Simply by attending Noble, students are about twice as likely to end up in a competitive college than if they had attended another local high school, according to an analysis by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. And Noble alumni are now graduating college at more than five times’ the national average among low-income students.

Still, Matt says they’re nowhere near where they want to be… yet.

“Everything I do, everything I think about has a real impact on our kids. When you identify things that will help them persist, you’re changing lives — and a lot of them,” he said. “College is the goal, yes. But the point is that we want them to have happy, successful, choice-filled lives… That’s what keeps me energized every day.”


Stephanie Germeraad is The Broad Center’s senior director of communications.

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