A City Aims for College for All

Oakland wants every student to have the resources to attend college — and early successes offer lessons for school and city leaders everywhere

May 11, 2018
illustration of silhouettes with cap and gown against blue-tinged city backdrop

Educators and policymakers from every pocket of the United States have committed to increasing college access for minority and low-income students, but it remains an elusive goal.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of black high school graduates immediately enrolling in a two- or four-year college remained steady at 56 percent, while the number of white students increased from 65 percent to 71. The data is even more startling for college graduation rates: In 2016, just 38 percent of black students graduated from a four-year college or university in six years, compared to 62 percent of white students.

Oakland, California, has decided to tell a different story. With leadership and resources from the Mayor’s Office, the school district, and partners across the city, a new initiative called the Oakland Promise is re-envisioning how cities can make college a reality for all young people. It’s providing scholarships to children and families at a very young age and actively mentoring students in middle school, high school, and through college, focusing on what it will take for them to succeed. “We wove together a number of national best practices into a continuum of supports from birth to career that we believe could truly shift outcomes in a dramatic way,” says Mayor Libby Schaaf.

The initiative is still young, but it's showing promising results. The number of black students in Oakland who enrolled in a four-year college increased from 22 percent to 36.6 percent, and the number of Latino students increased from 40.7 percent to 47.9 percent — in just the year between 2015 to 2016. [View other data here, including more two- and four-year college enrollment numbers.]

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The Oakland Promise is re-envisioning how cities can make college a reality for all young people. It’s providing scholarships to children and families at a very young age and actively mentoring students in middle school, high school, and through college.

Oakland is one of six cities participating in By All Means, a national initiative to build citywide systems of support for children and to identify and share the practices that work. The project was spearheaded by Paul Reville, the former secretary of education in Massachusetts who now runs the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Schaaf and fellow mayors and municipal leaders from the six cities have spent the last several years exploring how municipal structures that support schools — and go beyond schools — can be intentionally aligned to close the opportunity gap.

Here, we highlight Oakland’s work on college readiness, distilling its successes into takeaways for other education and municipal leaders.

A Citywide Approach to College Access: Three Key Components

“Our city is surrounded by some of the best economic opportunities in the world, and our children are not leaving school prepared to take advantage of those opportunities,” says Schaaf. The Oakland Promise strives to change that reality by providing support to students at every stage of their lives.

  • Starting young: Research has shown that “with as little as $500 in a college savings account, you’re three times as likely to go to college, and four times as likely to graduate,” says David Silver, who leads the Oakland Promise. With those findings in mind, Oakland has created the Brilliant Baby program, which provides up to $500 in college scholarships to babies born into poverty in Oakland, and the Kindergarten to College program, which gives up to $200 in college scholarships and savings accounts to every public school kindergartener.
     
  • Targeting all teens: Oakland’s Future Centers are literal hubs inside middle and high schools that offer comprehensive guidance on college applications, scholarships, and internships to students. Rather than focusing only on the top 10 or 15 percent of a graduating class, this “one-stop shop” approach makes it easy for all students to seek out help on any college or career dilemma, and for schools to ensure that every single teen is receiving support, says Ay’Anna Moody, the director of high school Future Centers.
     
  • Providing support through college: First-generation college students are at a higher risk of dropping out than peers, because they often face unforeseen financial and personal challenges and may not have family resources to overcome them. The College Scholarship and Completion program is providing multiyear scholarships to students throughout college. The initiative is also matching college students with mentors who can provide lasting social-emotional support along the way. The East Bay College Fund, a key partner in this aspect of the work, has a college completion rate for low-income students that is four times the national average
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When you’ve just been elected,” says Schaaf, there’s a “moment of opportunity, a swell of optimism and collaboration, that is not there at all times.” Her team used that moment to tackle college access from a number of angles, rather than through a single program.

Other Strategies for Success

Making these programs a reality — and sustaining such a wide-reaching initiative — has required support from every part of the city. The following strategies have been particularly important:

  • Maintain a cross-sector council. “Oakland’s had a long history around public sector collaboration,” says Curtiss Sarikey, chief of staff for the Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District. He points to a municipal collaboration called the Youth Ventures Joint Powers Authority, which has convened officials from the city, the school district, and the surrounding county for nearly 15 years to focus on the needs of young people. This ongoing partnership made it simpler for Schaaf to establish the Oakland Promise as a citywide priority.
     
  • For mayors, start big. “When you’ve just been elected,” says Schaaf, there’s a “moment of opportunity, a swell of optimism and collaboration, that is not there at all times.” Her team used that moment to tackle college access from a number of angles, rather than through a single program. Initial large-scale investments helped spur early successes, allowing the Oakland Promise to make the case throughout the city that its goals were attainable.
     
  • Draw on local support from all corners. The Oakland Promise has garnered support from backers who have both a significant name nationally and a strong local presence, says Silver. At the same time, the initiative has made a point of inviting every organization and individual in the city to sign on as Promise Champions. This wide range of partners has helped everyone in Oakland feel excited about, connected to, and responsible for the future of its children.
     
  • Create excitement in elementary schools. Many parents and teachers of young children are barely thinking about college, so the Oakland Promise team has made it a priority to reach out to elementary schools and celebrate these new programs. They’ve also created staff ambassador positions for this work, so that principals don’t feel overburdened by rolling it out to teachers, and so that families feel informed and excited.
     
  • Align with pre-existing programs. The Oakland Promise has been able to provide scholarships to so many students because of its partnerships with the East Bay College Fund and with local colleges and universities. It has also streamlined and capitalized on the work of other organizations that serve students in the public schools, such as Latino Men and Boys and African American Male Achievement, says Moody.
     
  • Make sure different sectors are talking and working together. In one example of how municipal strengths can be aligned, the Future Centers are working to provide high school students with summer internships found through the mayor’s summer jobs program. To make this program work, the Mayor’s Office alerts Future Centers about internship opportunities, and staff in the Centers help students create resumes and practice their interviewing skills to land these jobs.
     
  • Prioritize long-term, sustainable funding. The Oakland Promise has to remain viable for decades in order to pay off for all students. After raising more than $50 million at the start, Mayor Schaaf is exploring the possibility of sustained public funding that would create a stream of revenue for the next 30 years. Knowing that political tenure is often short, securing that funding would “literally let us leave office knowing that we will keep our promise,” says Schaaf.
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College and Career Education Policy K-12 School Leadership