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Improving college access and completion for Michigan youth

At the national, state, and local level, college access networks are leaving no stone unturned in an effort to increase college-going rates across Michigan and the entire nation. 
A number of national benchmarks for college degree completion have been adopted by organizations across the country. The Obama administration has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, and Lumina Foundation has set a goal to reach 60% degree attainment by 2025.

These goals are all fine answers to "Where will we be in ten years?" But are they realistic? And what will it take to get there?

The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) has also adopted Lumina's Goal 2025. And they're consistently cited as an exemplary case for how to make college degree completion efforts work.

A focus on community

MCAN has created a unique framework of local college access networks (LCANs). Those LCANs focus intensively on individual communities, bringing local leadership, commitment, and authentic support to common college access goals.

Each LCAN has a team of CEO-level leaders representing higher ed, K-12, business, government, community organizations and nonprofits. All of the leaders agree on a common set of goals for students living within those communities and commit to track data transparently on the goals they set.

There are 48 LCANs throughout the state of Michigan, including five neighborhood-based LCANs in the city of Detroit. This on-the-ground focus has helped create better systems for everyone.

"[Detroit's LCANs] have to get data on their current college-going rates for their high schools. In Michigan, very few have ever done that, relying instead on senior exit surveys," which aren't completely reliable, Johnson says. "We help individual communities get verified college enrollment data for their graduates, analyze it to identify their biggest gaps, and strategically locate target resources to fill those gaps."

Johnson believes that true, strong partnerships, while difficult, are vital to college access work.

"Our LCANs are all professionally staffed, which is a little different from loose alliances between organizations," says Johnson. "We mean business with our LCANs. These need to be formal alliances. Having someone who wakes up every morning knowing it's their job to increase college-going rates by leveraging existing resources is kind of a game-changer."

The need for success

Until recently, strategies to improve college access ostensibly focused on breaking down the barriers that prevent students from going to college: financial, racial, societal, practical, academic, aspirational, and psychological.

But in the last decade or so, a question began to challenge advocates of the college access agenda: Does it matter if we improve access to college if those students don't succeed at completing their degrees?

Where did this conversation come from?

"As our programs became more data-driven, we saw a new set of issues," says Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. Once students are on campus, they are operating in a completely new environment with a different language and a different set of rules and procedures. Students may not know how to drop a class, or how to take advantage of tutoring programs, math labs, or office hours. Navigating the bureaucracy of the financial aid office alone can be a major stumbling block.

As students who needed help began to turn to the trusted relationships they built with college access networks during high school, a systemic problem became clear.

"Many of our programs said: We need to address this broadly, not just individually," Cook says.

Now it is common to see college access efforts paired with or expanded to include success efforts. Among its membership, NCAN has seen a number of strategies that work for improving success, such as summer orientation programs, placing advisors on campus or making more advisors available through email and social media, and partnering with higher ed institutions to make them aware of the challenges that students face.  

But broadening access efforts to include success shouldn't draw attention away from efforts to improve college access, Cook says.

"This conversation is a good one and an important one, but by no means does talking about success mean that we've solved the access issues," she says. "When we look at this from an equity lens, we see which students are succeeding and which students continue to struggle with access and completion in much more challenging ways. We need the big numbers, and to get there we're going to have to do a lot of hard work. We're going to have to reach out to some students who haven't been encouraged or given the tools they need to access and complete."

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