books vs. food

Skipping meals to afford books: College students’ financial woes go beyond tuition payments, survey shows

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio with KIPP co-founder David Levin at KIPP Infinity Middle School.

As a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, Ernest Gould worked multiple jobs, but still had trouble paying for basic living expenses like books, food and transportation.

So he would skip “a lot of meals,” mostly breakfast, to help pay for things like MetroCards and school supplies. Even then, he didn’t have enough money to buy a laptop or a phone, which meant he did all of his homework in the library — often staying until late at night to finish.

“It’s just another level of anxiety that you have to deal with,” he said.

Gould is one of many college students struggling to pay for expenses beyond the school’s tuition, according to a survey of almost 3,000 former KIPP students released last week.

KIPP, a charter network with schools in New York, New Jersey and other cities, sends an average of 81 percent of its graduates to college. But, as the survey reveals, many struggle financially once they get there.

More than 40 percent of surveyed students — the majority of whom are low-income — reported missing meals so they could pay for books or other school expenses. About one-quarter of students said they are either fully or partially supporting their families while in college.

KIPP’s survey is a reminder that the cost of college extends well beyond tuition for many students. That concept is not new, but it has resurfaced in the debate over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide free college tuition at state colleges for all families earning less than $125,000 per year.

Cuomo’s plan was hailed as a much-needed boost for middle-class families. But it has also drawn criticism for providing little to no assistance for low-income students who are already receiving state and federal grants, but could benefit from help with other costs, such as books, food and rent.

KIPP’s co-founder David Levin is a proponent of Cuomo’s tuition plan, which he says will ease the cost burden on some former KIPP students who do not receive full financial aid at college. He also hopes it will crack open a larger conversation about the myriad financial challenges low-income college students face.

“Tuition is the gatekeeper for kids overall, so if there are increased funds that cover college tuition … there will be the ability to focus on these broader issues,” Levin said.

The survey’s findings highlight the unmet need. Nearly 60 percent of KIPP alumni reported worrying about running out of food during college. In addition, only about 30 percent said they had found jobs or internships aligned to their career aspirations.

For many, finding a job — any job — is essential because they are helping to support their families. That is especially common among students enrolled in two-year programs, the survey found: Thirty-four percent of those surveyed reported helping out occasionally and 14 percent said they fully financially support their families.

That finding gets to the heart of another provision in Cuomo’s free college tuition plan, which requires students to be enrolled full-time in order to qualify for the scholarship. Cuomo and the plan’s supporters have said that rule is meant to encourage on-time graduation since students enrolled in college full-time are more likely to earn a degree.

But others argue the plan unfairly cuts out students who have to attend school part-time to support family members. While Gould supports Cuomo’s tuition proposal, he understands how holding a job can make it tough to cram a full load of credits into one semester.

Gould has been working full-time to help support his family since his mom lost her job two years ago. His days at school frequently ended in night shifts at a Manhattan hotel. Now he ushers at Madison Square Garden.

Through it all, he’s maintained a 3.0 GPA and is on track to finish school this semester, about five and a half years after he started. That timeline would not have worked under Cuomo’s tuition plan. As currently written, students would have to average 15 credits and, except in limited circumstances, have to finish in four years.

“Honestly, 15 credits would have been impossible,” Gould said.

Levin said the stories of his students and the survey results reveal an important truth: Cuomo’s plan is a great step, but there is more to do going forward.

“I think it’s an incredible plan,” Levin said. “I think what we’ve learned, and what colleges know, is that it takes more than just tuition to get kids through.”

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.