Ewing Kauffman always believed that education was the key to success in life—the one-way ticket out of poverty. Yet he understood that many urban students often do not have the skills or opportunity to pursue a college education, and he wanted to help more students achieve that goal. He also knew that in today’s economy, a higher education would be necessary to obtain a good-paying job with benefits.
In 2003, the Kauffman Foundation launched a comprehensive academic enrichment and mentoring program aimed at helping Kansas City-area urban students with lots of potential but little opportunity to prepare for a successful future. Called Kauffman Scholars, the $70 million, nineteen-year initiative is the largest and longest-term commitment in the Foundation’s history. In many ways, it represents the best of what Mr. Kauffman hoped for in helping Kansas City youth become productive citizens. Indeed, the program grew out of the very seeds planted by Mr. Kauffman himself nearly two decades ago.
The Beginning: Project Choice
The year was 1988. Ewing Kauffman wanted to reduce the dropout rate among urban high-school students. He believed that if he offered these students a choice for a better future, they would do whatever it took to finish high school. Thus Project Choice was born. Through this program, nearly 1,400 Kansas City high-school students were offered the chance for a fully paid college education if they graduated on time, avoided drugs and pregnancy, and otherwise stayed out of trouble. Mr. Kauffman showed that despite the barriers of poverty, urban “at risk” young people could be put on the road to becoming productive members of society if they received a good education.
Project Choice officially ended in 2001 with the college graduation of the final class of students in the program. During its thirteen years of operation, more than 30 percent of Choice students who started college graduated with a bachelor’s degree within five years—a considerably higher rate than the 6 percent graduation rate for all U.S. low-income college students.
Something went so well in this program that it was absolutely clear we should return to this idea, learning from the successes and challenges of the past and designing a program to become yet more ambitious and successful. One key takeaway from Project Choice was that focusing on dropout prevention did not help students get ready to take that next big step to college. In fact, when Choice students arrived at college, they were not nearly as prepared for success as they could have been. Much more is known now than when Mr. Kauffman started Project Choice about the predictors for college attendance and graduation among low-income students. We knew from our past experience and this research that we could help even more students earn their college degrees.
What Research Tells Us
The need among low-income urban students is great. Statistics today paint a bleak picture of the number of urban students—especially those not at the top of their class—who get a real opportunity to attend college. Only about half of African American and Hispanic American ninth graders graduate from high school within four years, compared with 79 percent of Asian Americans and 72 percent of whites. Only 26 percent of all students attending colleges and universities come from low-income families, and of those students, only 6 percent earn their undergraduate degrees.
Research also shows that students who receive a rigorous high-school education are much more likely to attend and graduate from a four-year college. Low-income students routinely are less prepared for college than students of families with higher incomes. Moreover, these students need an array of social support to prepare them to succeed in college. College-access programs help low-income students defy expectations and beat the odds in the face of numerous challenges.
So, as we began developing the concept for a new initiative, we knew it had to be a college-access and college-prep program. Our goal with Kauffman Scholars is not simply to keep teens from dropping out of school. We want to fully prepare these young people for a bright, productive, and successful future.