Q&A: Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to the Secretary on the College Access Initiative, Dept. of Ed.

Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan -

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Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan on College Access, wants cities participating in the Talent Dividend to know this: You can make an impact.

He saw it happen in Chicago where, in part as a result of strategies he implemented as Director of the Department of College and Career Prepartion at Chicago Public Schools, college enrollment among CPS high school graduates increased by 47% between 2004 and 2011. Now, at the Department of Education, he is working with the administration to increase degree completion in the U.S. to 60% by 2020.

Improving access to college -- through simple strategies like making the FAFSA easier to fill out -- is a key piece of the degree attainment puzzle. We spoke to him about why it's so important and what cities are doing that's working. 

Talent Dividend Network: This may seem self-evident, but why is college access so important? 
Greg Darnieder: The President has set a goal for the country to be the number one country in the world in terms of degree completion by 2020. That goal requires us to move from about 40% degree completion rate to about 60% degree completion. 
Today, President [Barack Obama] and [U.S. Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan talk about the skills mismatch -- there are somewhere between 2 and 3 million jobs available, but people don’t have the right qualifications, or those who do don’t live in the places where those jobs are available. This gap exists from the medical sector to the manufacturing sector to technologies. 
From an individual standpoint, it will be increasingly difficult to support oneself and one's family without getting some sort of degree behind your name. Just look at the unemployment rates today -- they're much lower for those who have baccalaureate degrees than they are for those who drop out of high school, and for those who graduate high school but don't go on to get any sort of additional degree. 
TDN: What are we talking about when we talk about access? How is the Obama administration working to improve affordability, equity, and readiness? 
GD: On the affordability side, improving college access means protecting the maximum Pell grant. In next year's budget, President Obama has proposed a small increase of $75, which is not really much of a substantive increase, but it's a symbolic increase, in terms of the importance this administration places on protecting the financial aspects the government has put in place to support students who are need-based and eligible for federal funding. [This year] we are close to 10 million Pell recipients, which has grown from 6.5 million recipients just in the last 3.5 years. 
A number of initiatives within the K-12 system -- many of them playing out in Talent Dividend cities -- are working with administrators and school counselors to get more high school students to fill out the FAFSA. About 1.1 million graduating students would be eligible for federal support if they filled out the form. ... This is where the work Talent Dividend cities are doing interests us quite a bit, where the civic community, the business community, the higher education community can come together and support a critical step for low-income students attaining the financial resources they need to go on to higher ed.
We've also reduced the amount of time it takes to fill out the FAFSA, from about an hour and 10 minutes to something like 27 minutes, by using skip logic and increasing number of students linking their FAFSA to their tax return. We’re trying to use technology to help support students and their families just in this one critical step of affordability.
In terms of readiness, only 25% of 2012 ACT test takers met their benchmarks in English, math, reading and science to be successful in college. The whole aspect of academic rigor through the K-12 system is part of what we're paying attention to, and why we're working with state school officers around the Common Core and trying to elevate the standards around rigor even further. 
TDN: What's working in college access? What are the most effective strategies you've seen for improving access? 
Sometimes it just boils down to paying attention to some of these small steps. In Boston, there's a group called Access that works on financial aid with high school students. They've gotten about a dozen or so colleges in the area to use the same financial aid award letter format. There's no standard in these award letters, and the terminology is very confusing to students and their families. Many times it's unclear exactly what the student will have to pay out of his/her pocket versus what they're getting in grants and [other aid]. Just that one step makes it so much easier for school personnel to work with those families and students to evaluate award letters. 
In Fulton County, GA, they have been looking at "summer loss." When first-generation students graduate from high school, the next ten to 12 weeks before college starts can be treacherous. The day after [a senior class] graduates, in most districts, those counselors and school administrators are now focused on the incoming freshman class. This can be a huge challenge for young people in terms of finalizing all of the various steps of showing up and having everything in place, from housing, to books, to your class schedule. In eight different districts, researchers are putting some of these counselors on community college campuses, the idea being that the kid has a relationship with his/her high school counselor. If that counselor is now at the community college, that relationship can be continued, and that counselor [is] sending texts to students once a week: Did you remember to sign up for your courses? Did you remember to check out the cost of your books? They're using technology in a proactive way to support this transition.
New York City has come up with a high school level report card on whether students actually enroll in college using National Student Clearinghouse data. A high school in New York gets a report, titled "Where Are They Now" -- it measures college enrollment, CUNY enrollment, and measures by course whether students from those high schools go into remedial courses. It also compares that high school's percentage by course with the city average. New York is moving toward making this part of a school principal's annual evaluation. It bridges this chasm that exists between K-12 and higher education in terms of systems being aligned and helping students transition fluidly into post-secondary education. 
TDN: What advice would you offer to the cities competing for the Talent Dividend Prize? 
GD: I've been fortunate enough to have conversations with many of the cities involved with the Talent Dividend. What interests me -- given the evidence of places like Chicago, and Boston, that have been at this for six or seven years, and have shown some significant impact -- is this theory of change around collective impact, using data and being transparent of about data, and using community resources from higher ed, civic, philanthropic, and faith-based communities to impact research-based data points -- it is really, really powerful. The Talent Dividend Prize is this short-term goal, which is great, but the overall challenge for a community is to get these resources aligned in a way that has a long-term impact on kids' lives. Even though the Talent Dividend Prize is focused at the end of that K-12 journey, you have communities who embrace this challenge at the kindergarten level, and saying, "Research tells us that they’ve got to be prepared to be successful from the go," or are looking at different points along that pathway that are research-based.
Looking at the evidence from places like Chicago, where enrollment and completion will continue to rise, it's critical that communities enter this challenge knowing that it can be done. They can make significant impact. [But] they've got to be really strategic and smart about doing it and have leaders both inside the K-12 system and from higher ed and business communities fully invested in making this happen.
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