• St. Louis area boosts college graduation rate, but not enough
    st. louis post-dispatch
    Post Photo

    Shawn Williams, a family and community specialist at Pierre Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis, keeps order in the lunch line at the school on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. Williams is a first-generation college graduate and credits encouragement at home and from teachers and counselors. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

    November 27, 2012 12:05 am  • 

    The Semester Online program will be available to undergraduate students. Courses will be taken via the Internet through live classroom settings.

    Wanda Garner used to make a poster each school year showing a pair of houses. The first, a mansion. The second, a dilapidated wreck.

    She would ask the students who walked through her door for counseling: Which one do you want to live in?

    It was one of the ways Garner, a counselor for 15 years at Vashon and Beaumont high schools, tries to get through to students who don’t see college as the next logical step in life.

    They need to be nudged and guided down a path that will help them, and the communities they live in.

    “You have to spoon-feed them, just like you would a baby,” said Garner, who made the switch from teaching to counseling because she felt as if students weren’t always getting the attention they needed.

    In that line of thinking, Garner has supporters among the leadership ranks of St. Louis Graduates, a young coalition striving to drastically increase the region’s output of college degrees by 2020.

    The group — made up of area nonprofit organizations, businesses and schools — just released its first progress report card since embarking on its mission three years ago. “One Student at a Time” highlights some of the area’s achievements but also makes it clear that total success won’t be easy.

    The good: Between 2007 and 2010 — the most recent data available — the metro area had the largest percentage point increase in bachelor’s and associate degrees among the nation’s 35 largest metro areas. As of 2010, 37.8 percent of adults 25 and older have at least an associate degree.

    The bad: With just 10 years to go, the region needs to figure out a way to push itself faster to get past the 50 percent goal set by the coalition.

    “Even though we did better than everybody else, it was not at a pace that would get us to 50 percent by 2020,” said Terry Jones, the report’s author and a professor of political science and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.


    The coalition is trying to figure out how to create more students like Shawn Williams, one of Garner’s former charges at Vashon and a recent graduate of Missouri State University.

    Williams is a first-generation college graduate now working as the family and community specialist at Laclede Elementary, while harboring dreams of one day being a school principal.

    While neither of his parents finished college, Williams describes a childhood that pushed him toward higher education.

    He was encouraged at home. He remembers teachers in the fourth and fifth grade taking him on college tours. He had a pen pal at St. Louis University. And in high school, he had Wanda Garner.

    “I had a good foundation. I was one of the lucky ones,” Williams said. “It was literally a natural step from high school to college.”

    That way of thinking is one of the things that needs to grow for the region to make a serious run at the 2020 goal.

    The coalition’s leaders see the potential for some fast improvements if they can spread that culture to some of the school districts where students have college aptitude but not enough support to put it to use.

    “I think there’s still some ripe fruit out there for us to pursue,” said Jane Donahue, vice president of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of St. Louis Graduates.

    That, of course, isn’t the only obstacle standing between the region and a 50 percent degree rate.

    As college costs rise and financial aid is threatened at both the state and national level, access is a key issue. And for many students, the act of navigating the path from high school to college is a major obstacle, particularly when it comes to understanding the complex financial aid process, Donahue and others say.


    There’s something else working against the region’s larger goal of improving its position among the large metro areas. It’s the fact that everyone else is attempting the same thing, fueled by national efforts by the Lumina Foundation and by President Barack Obama’s goal of seeing 60 percent of the nation’s young people with college degrees by 2020.

    In a sense, the St. Louis region has to work at this, simply to avoid falling further behind. Moving from its current No. 22 ranking and into the teens — for residents 25 and older with either an associate or bachelor’s degree — means a lot of work.

    “You need to run fast to stay even. You need to run faster to get ahead,” said Jones, from UMSL.

    Among those pushing to get ahead is Beth Bender, principal of Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis.

    Two years ago, Bender attended a workshop where participants spent time analyzing the way counseling is doled out at schools. They looked at how top students — particularly those from affluent or college-experienced families — tend to get advice from school counselors, parents and other mentors. The students at the other end of the spectrum typically only have what they get at school.

    “What we realized was that some kids were over-served. Others were being under-served,” said Bender, in her fifth year as Gateway’s principal.

    So she decided to change the way her school approaches college counseling.

    Every other week, she meets with her four counselors to go over the progress of each of the 250 seniors, looking for those who need extra help or special attention. They look at things like ACT tests, college applications and financial aid forms.

    They keep a watch out for the kids whose parents aren’t taking an interest in their children’s college prospects. “We’ll put a mark by them to know that this is a parent we have to work around,” she said.

    Last year was the first year of the program, so they won’t know until later this year or early next year about its effectiveness. The goal, however, is to push the college-bound rate of students from 70 percent to above 80 percent.

    “It makes sure that, hopefully, nobody falls through the cracks,” Bender said. “Or at least not as many.”

    “I think there’s still some ripe fruit out there for us to pursue.”