College Access and Success

Recapping the First CAP College Success Institute

by Amanda Medress

Recapping the First CAP College Success Institute

What ideas do 100+ education professionals have about closing the college degree gap?

At the inaugural CAP College Success Institute in May, professionals gathered from across the nation—including Arkansas, California, Colorado, DC, Hawaii, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas—to discuss how to increase the college graduation rate of low-income and first-generation students. Representatives from community-based organizations, college and universities, K-12 schools, and foundations were in the room.

While many national conferences are dedicated to college access, far fewer are dedicated to college success—this is the need CAP is trying to fill. “As you know, nationally only 11% of low-income students graduate from college by age 24,” CAP Executive Director Melissa Fries said in her opening remarks. “You are here because you believe—as we believe—that 11% is not enough. And we’re here to do something about it.”

Here are some insights that emerged:

#1: Don’t underestimate the hidden costs of college.

On a panel hosted by the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Policy Project, LEDA scholars spoke about the unanticipated costs of college. Karim, an engineering student at Stanford, once spent $160 on a software program license in order to finish his homework (not to mention needing a MacBook and TI84 calculator). Cindy, a biology major at the University of North Carolina, got a concussion playing rugby, which resulted in chiropractor and sports medicine appointments that her full-ride scholarship did not cover. Cindy encouraged colleges and universities to incentivize work-study programs that are relevant to students’ majors (Cindy, for example, is paid to work in a lab), so students can save for unanticipated costs while also gaining experience that will benefit their academic and/or professional careers.

The LEDA panel

#2: We need to prepare students for the future of digitalization.

Many assume today’s youth innately understand technology—but Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, pointed out that 80% of high school students say they can’t find information if it doesn’t show up on the first page of a Google search. According to, whereas California has 72,187 open computing jobs (3.5 times the average for the state), only 6,236 college students in California graduated with a computer science degree in 2017. In addition to preparing students for these jobs, we need to prepare students for the future of digitalization: process work is already shifting to digitalization, and other types of work are moving in that direction. Jaime believes the skills needed most in the digitalization economy are problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, ability to learn, and creativity.

Participants talking after a session

#3: Look for ways to ameliorate belonging uncertainty.

Princeton University is undergoing a transformation of its student body: according to university data, around 20% of students are Pell Grant recipients and 18% of the class of 2023 is first-gen. Dr. Khristina Gonzalez, Associate Dean of the College and Director of Programs for Access and Inclusion at Princeton University, talked about how the university is addressing “belonging uncertainty,” a phenomenon that is triggered by negative social events, academic setbacks, and institutional factors. While everyone looks for signals about whether they fit into a new place, minoritized students are especially sensitive to these signals and may blame themselves instead of other factors. Princeton is using this knowledge to test interventions and programs that build a more inclusive culture for first-generation and low-income students, including an on-campus summer program for incoming freshman, an online summer program for incoming freshman, and a four-year scholars’ program.

CAP Executive Director Melissa Fries introduces Dr. Gonzalez

#4: It’s not enough to focus on college graduation.

Eli Bildner, Co-Founder of Concourse Education, highlighted the challenges recent college graduates face looking for their first job. According to one report, over 40% of new graduates are underemployed in their first post-college position. Employers are also becoming more risk-averse in hiring, with approximately 60% of entry-level roles requiring more than three years of experience. At the same time, students don’t always have the support they need: In surveys, just one in six students says that their university career services office was “very helpful” (and only half of students visit a career office at all). Bildner believes more colleges should embed work-based learning (such as career exploration and assessments and cooperative work experience) into the curriculum. May Melehan, Director of Coaching Services at CAP, described how CAP supports college students in building their careers: all students are encouraged to develop a roadmap (i.e. where they want to go), and then acquire skills (i.e. networking), resources (i.e. resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles), and experiences (i.e. internships, mock interviews, and informational interviews) that help them achieve their goal.


CAP Director of Coaching Services May Melehan presenting on CAP’s coaching framework

#5. To close the degree gap, the education system needs to change.

In a closing keynote talk entitled “Who Gets to Graduate?” New York Times bestselling author Paul Tough said that the current education system makes it very difficult for low-income and first-generation college students to reach a degree. As Mr. Tough writes in the New York Times,  “When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years…The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t.” Mr. Tough discussed the ways colleges and universities are supporting lower-income and first-gen students. The University of Texas, for example, has created a program called the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP) which places these students in smaller classes, offers advisors who provide extra support, and provides peer mentors who are upperclassmen.

Paul Tough giving closing keynote remarks

Please save the date for the second annual CAP College Success Institute, taking place May 18-19, 2020 in the San Francisco Bay Area!