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Oakland Promise aims to triple college graduation rates

on September 22, 2016

Jennifer Escobedo is a long way from home. It has only been a few weeks since the Coliseum College Prep graduate set foot on Wesleyan’s campus in Middletown, Connecticut, for the beginning of her freshmen year. “At first, I hated it,” she said. Her 3,000 mile flight from California got in late. She was alone, and had trouble hailing a taxi. But as orientation began, Escobedo found herself having a change of heart. “I met people who I can relate to,” the first-generation college student said.

The City of Oakland estimates that 10 percent of all Oakland students will graduate college within five years. Those who do earn significantly more over their lifetimes: millennials ages 25 to 32 with a Bachelor’s degree earn $17, 500 more a year than those with a high school diploma, a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center found.

Mayor Libby Schaaf and her Oakland Promise team want to make sure Escobedo is one of them, and change that number for future generations.

The Oakland Promise is the brainchild of Schaaf, her education director, David Silver, and OUSD Superintendent Antwan Wilson. Through a combination of savings accounts, scholarships and positive messaging, the program seeks to triple college graduation rates of Oakland students over the next decade.

The program, which has so far raised over $25 million from private philanthropy, is designed to invest in students four ways. The first component is “Brilliant Baby.” This spring, a pilot program will open $500 savings accounts for the babies of 250 low-income families. As parents go through the program, they will have opportunities to earn additional savings by participating in activities known to improve educational outcomes, such as taking their child to the library.

The second component is “Kindergarten to College,” or K2C. Modeled after a similar program in San Francisco, every kindergartener in Oakland Unified will have a $100 college savings account opened in their name by the end of 2020. Parents will be encouraged to save, and will have a certain amount matched through philanthropy.

“One of the reasons why Oakland Promise will succeed is because it is based on best practices,” Silver says. He says that both Brilliant Baby and Kindergarten to College are based on research showing that opening a college savings account in a child’s name can have a positive effect on the child graduating from college.

Silver said that how much parents save does not seem to be contingent on income. Rather, he said, results from San Francisco suggest that teacher buy-in and frequent communication with parents play bigger roles in how much families save.

Dr. William Elliott is an expert on children’s savings and college debt at the University of Kansas. According to his research, having a savings account, even one with very little in it, can make a big difference. Low- and middle-income children who saved between $1 to $499 in a college-designated account were more than three times as likely to enroll in college, and more than 4.5 times as likely to graduate, his studies indicate.

Elliot says that these results have more to do with changing student and family expectations about college, rather than the amount in the savings accounts. “Kids see: Not only are you talking about college, but now you’re also putting money in the account. And I see other people who look like me who are doing this, too.” he said.

$500 in savings is a small step in being able to afford college. The average graduate of California institutions will graduate with $21,382 in debt.  Similarly, a 2015 report from Gallup and Purdue University found that 42 percent of first-generation college students nationally graduate with more than $25,000 in debt.

Rather than making college affordable, the purpose of the savings accounts is “about creating positive identities around college, and making it seem more tangible,” Elliot says.

The Oakland Promise also has two aspects meant to help teenage students. It is opening several “Future Centers,” or school-based advising centers, in middle and high schools. Staff at the centers will help students develop career and college plans, and assist seniors with college applications, scholarships and financial aid.

Last year, the first Future Centers opened at two high schools that already had well established college advising programs: Coliseum College Prep Academy—which Escobedo attended—and Oakland High School. According to an internal impact report from the mayor’s office, the centers helped Coliseum College Prep achieve 100 percent Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) and Dream App completion, and double its number of University of California college applications. At Oakland High, the centers helped increase scholarship money from the East Bay College Fund, a non-profit that helps Oakland students graduate from college, by ten times—from $100,000 to $1,000,000.

This year the Future Centers will expand to several middle schools: Bret Harte, Fricke Impact Academy, Life Academy, and Coliseum College Prep Academy Middle School. An additional high school will be announced in October.

The final component of the Oakland Promise is the college scholarship and completion program. This program is designed to multiply the reach of the East Bay College Fund; the Oakland Promise will fund additional scholarships that the fund will administer.

Escobedo says she received a $10,000 Oakland Promise Scholarship through the program, and will receive an additional $2,500 scholarship for every year of college. Eventually, all qualifying Oakland students from low-income backgrounds will be eligible to apply for the Oakland Promise Scholarship, EBCF’s website says.

In the interim, fund staffers encourage all Oakland students to apply for their traditional college scholarships, and take advantage of new programs such as the free first semester at all Peralta Community Colleges, and access to the MyCoach app, which helps students navigate their first semesters at school.

While the $38 million Oakland Promise initiative has unanimous support from Oakland’s school board and city council, it is funded mainly from private philanthropic donations from individuals such as SalesForce CEO Marc Benioff (who contributed $3.4 million), foundations like the Kaiser Permanente Fund ($3 million), and companies like Pacific Gas and Electric Company ($1 million).

“The idea is to leverage philanthropy to prove that this is an amazing investment,” said Margaret Croushore, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. Later, the financial load can be shifted back toward the public sphere, Silver said, although how the city plans to do so is something Silver said it is “still exploring.”

But Silver said he remains confident about Oakland Promise’s chances of tripling the number of students who graduate from college over the next ten years. “I’ve never seen this kind of alignment between a city and a school district,” he said.

Elliott also said he believes the Oakland Promise can deliver on its word to students like Jennifer Escobedo. “I honestly do.” he said. “I am very encouraged by the continued body of evidence that suggest this is a real possibility.”


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  2. […] initiative to triple the number of Oakland students who graduate from college by the year 2025. The program aims to invest in students’ futures by helping their families open savings accounts, raising money for […]

  3. […] Indian Public Charter School II, and heard the first reading of a policy to accept and support Oakland Promise, a college and career readiness program in partnership with the City of […]

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