The Problem



The son of a hard-working single mother (Travis’ father was murdered when he was young), Travis passed all of his classes, attended school regularly, and obtained his diploma in the spring of 2009 with college acceptance letters in hand—quite an accomplishment in a city where less than 40% of African American males finish high school. On graduation day, he climbed the stage and spoke confidently about his academic future. His fifth grade teacher, founder Nick Ehrmann, sat proudly in the crowd.

During his freshman year of college, Travis encountered obstacles. He was assigned remedial courses—semester-long seminars in reading comp, writing, and basic math that didn’t count towards his degree. His counselors assured him that academic weaknesses were common in college, but by the middle of the semester, Travis was having trouble seeing the point. Transplanting himself to the middle of Pennsylvania with ten thousand dollars in debt for the opportunity to earn a handful of credits was not what Travis had in mind. In December, Travis quietly dropped out of school and returned home to Washington D.C.


College Readiness

In the US, we do an excellent job of selling students like Travis on the dream of college without preparing them to succeed once they get there. Over the past decade, researchers have reached a broad consensus that the strongest predictor of college completion is sustained academic rigor in high school coursework, outweighing a host of family, peer, environmental, and financial factors.[1] Yet, from the streets of DC to rural Texas, the gap between what it means to be college eligible and college ready is staggering. In New York City, only 21% of the Class of 2011 were prepared for college.[2]


On average, students who enter college without having mastered the core academic skills they need to avoid remediation and begin accumulating course credits are unlikely to persist beyond their first year. In the US, more than one in four college freshmen end up taking at least one remediation course.[3] Only 17% of students enrolled in a remedial reading course and 27% of students enrolled in a remedial math course end up completing their bachelor’s degree within 6 years.[4] Only 29% of Americans age 25 and over report having a bachelor’s degree.[5]

The Achievement Gap

The problem is compounded among low-income and minority students. While 41% of students from low-income families enroll in college, only 8.3% of students from low-income families have earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. [6] Low-income and minority students are more likely to need remediation than their wealthier, white peers: 41% percent of Hispanic students and 42 percent of African-American students require remediation, compared to 31 percent of white students.[7] 

The Big Picture

There is a lot at stake. Four-year college graduates earn $900,000 more over a lifetime than high school graduates without any postsecondary education.[8] As a matter of national competitiveness, an engine for economic growth, and a strategy to keep pathways to prosperity open and accessible to all Americans, increasing the share of Americans who convert high aspirations into postsecondary degree attainment ranks among our nation’s most pressing challenges in the 21st century. 

[1] Data drawn from the 1998 High School Transcript Study and the High School and Beyond study suggest that college persistence and degree attainment are driven fundamentally by student exposure to challenging coursework in high school.  In multivariate analyses conducted by the Bridgespan Group of low-income students in the NELS 1988 dataset, the incremental probability of college completion is tied most strongly to academic preparation during high school.  For more information on college readiness, see David Conley (2005) College Knowledge:  What it Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready.

[2] New York State Education Department data, June 2011. The study defined college preparedness as receiving college-ready scores of 80+ on the New York State Integrated Algebra and 75+ on the Comprehensive English Language Arts Regents Examinations

[3] Strong American Schools, Diploma to Nowhere, 2008

[4] United States Department of Education, The Condition of Education, 2004

[5] United States Department of Education Data, 2011

[6] Mortensen, Tom. “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment by Age 24 by Family Income Quartiles, 1970 to 2009.” (via KIPP College Completion Report)

[7] Strong American Schools, Diploma to Nowhere, 2008

[8] US Census Bureau (via KIPP College Completion Report)