All-In Milwaukee takes aim at Milwaukee’s college completion crisis

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For the past four years, All-In Milwaukee has been working to address what it calls “the completion crisis”: Too few Milwaukee students are going on to earn their college degrees, precluding them from accessing many good-paying jobs in the city. 

The nonprofit’s goal is to see more high-achieving, low-income students complete college with minimal debt. Its strategy is to provide wraparound support from a student’s senior year of high school through their matriculation into the Milwaukee workforce. 

Before the pandemic, 12% of Milwaukee’s high school graduates went on to receive a two- or four-year degree within six years, according to data provided by All-In Milwaukee and certified by the University of Wisconsin-Madison SSTAR Lab. And that rate could drop further in coming years, as education leaders say COVID-related disruptions have disproportionately affected low-income and minority students’ enrollment and persistence through college.   

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Milwaukee’s pre-pandemic college completion rate mirrors national completion rates among low-income students. According to the Pell Institute, just 11% of students from the lowest-income quartile earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared to 58% of students in the highest-income quartile.  

“We have a lot of work to do if we really want to increase the diverse future talent pipeline of our city. We have to get those same amazing students who excelled through high school through college,” said Allison Wagner, executive director of All-In Milwaukee.

All-In Milwaukee executive director Allison Wagner

All-In’s team works to address the roadblocks that stand in the way of students making the transitions from high school to college, from one semester to the next, and, ultimately, from the graduation stage to their first professional job. 

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So far, the program has seen promising results: 93% of the 200 college students it supports remain enrolled full-time at their university this spring, with 83% maintaining a 2.5 or higher GPA. All of its students come from limited-income families and all are students of color; 94% are the first generation in their family to attend college. 

All-In Milwaukee is the first to replicate a model developed by Minneapolis-based Wallin Education Partners, which has provided support to help students in the Twin Cities complete college over the past 30 years. With more than 5,000 alumni, that program reports a 90% college completion rate, 80% regional retention rate and 40% no-debt graduation rate. 

All-In Milwaukee students attend one of eight partnering colleges, with which the organization negotiates affordable tuition and housing packages. Partner institutions include the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee, Madison and Whitewater campuses; Marquette University, Carroll University; Alverno College; Milwaukee School of Engineering; and Wisconsin Lutheran College. The All-In scholarship works as a match grant, with the university contributing the balance of the nonprofit’s contribution. Ninety percent of All-In’s students currently do not have debt because of the reduced rates and scholarship money. 

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A $1 million lead gift from the family foundation of Darren Jackson, retired chief executive officer of Advance Auto Parts and a Marquette University alumnus, helped launch the program locally in 2018. Baird executives and its foundation were early supporters. Other corporate partners include Husco’s Ramirez family, Associated Bank, the Brewers Community Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, HellermannTyton, the Milwaukee Bucks, Northwestern Mutual, Weyco Foundation and others. Last year, the program expanded to serve students in Racine thanks to a gift from Fisk Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer of S.C. Johnson & Sons Inc.

When its next class of high school seniors is selected in May, All-In expects to be serving 315 students in total. Spots are limited, Wagner said. Over three years, the program has received nearly 600 applications for the 200 current spots. 

“We lose sleep at night because we know there are hundreds of students on our waitlist that we won’t be able to serve,” she said. “…  There is a misconception in this town that some kids will be just fine. No one will be just fine, especially through the pandemic.”

All-In Milwaukee’s first class, who are college juniors in their second semester.

Financial assistance is a key component of the program, but All-In leaders stress the importance of providing academic, social/emotional and career readiness support to first-gen college students as well. 

“Equity is so much more than just money,” Wagner said. 

Once a student is accepted into the program in the spring of their senior year of high school, All-In advisors begin working with them on the transition to college, helping them complete financial aid forms, sign up for housing and enroll in classes. 

“Often times in high school counseling, it sort of stops after (students) get accepted and they decide where they’re going,” said Irving Ibarra, an All-In Milwaukee scholar advisor. “A lot of first-gen students have to go through a lot of financial aid verification and paperwork they need to turn in, and we’re advocating for them to get the most amount of financial aid.”

Once students arrive on campus, All-In advisors help them tap into the support network available at their colleges, while also helping address the particular barriers that first-gen and low-income students often face, said program director Tiffany Tardy. That could look like helping a student cover the cost of a parking pass or streamlining the book-buying process through the university bookstore. For students who have less financial security, those small expenses and logistical hurdles could be the difference between staying in school or not. 

“When there is a need, we have to act and we have to act fast because that’s how you retain students,” Tardy said.   

Eibar Robledo, a sophomore at Marquette University.

Eibar Robledo, a Marquette University sophomore and graduate of University School of Milwaukee and Bruce-Guadalupe Middle School, said he often turns to his advisor, Ibarra, when making decisions. 

“I’m always talking to Irving about how classes are going. If I need anything, like any meal plans or books or really anything, Irving is there to help me out,” Robledo said. 

All-In students also often connect with one another on their campuses.  

“We see our students living together. We see our students joining organizations and extracurriculars together. That’s all part of the value-add that we provide to these institutions, where not only are we helping to recruit and matriculate students, but we’re actually retaining them and making sure they feel a sense of belonging,” Wagner said.  

All-In also helps students explore possible careers through aptitude assessments, personal advising and quarterly professional development sessions that focus on the basics of writing cover letters and resumes as well as navigating difficult conversations in the workplace and dealing with imposter syndrome, said Tardy.  

“We really want them to be young, strong professionals of color in this community and then be an agent of change,” she said. 

Baird leaders were quick to support All-In’s launch because of the success Wallin Education Partners has seen in Minnesota, said Mary Ellen Stanek, managing director and chief investment officer of Baird Advisors and president of Baird Funds. 

“It was a proven model,” said Stanek, who sits on All-In’s board of directors and personally supports three students through the program. 

Baird provided six paid internships for All-In students last year and plans to have as many as a dozen this summer. The wealth management company is one of 30 area companies that work with All-In to provide internship opportunities. 

Northwestern Mutual committed $1.6 million to All-In in 2020 to provide scholarships to more than 80 Milwaukee-area students through 2024. By this summer, the life insurance company will have worked with 15 interns from the program. 

Steve Radke, president of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, said the low college completion rate for Milwaukee students moved the company to act. 

“Simply put, we aim to change the trajectory for students in our hometown and boost our city’s diverse talent population, helping us contribute to the growth of Milwaukee,” Radke said.

In light of Milwaukee’s 12% college completion rate, Wagner said an investment in All-In is more than educational philanthropy. With an estimated 35% of jobs in the city requiring a college degree and over 60% requiring some post-secondary education, the credentialing mismatch threatens to thwart efforts by the region’s business community to increase diverse representation in its workforce and managerial ranks. 

“We’re not just a charity. (Companies) are looking at us as a pipeline partner,” Wagner said. “They’re investing in our students and our program but then providing them opportunities for internships, they’re providing them career mentors, and soon they’ll be hiring them.” 

In a tight labor market, internships are a major part of Baird’s recruitment strategy. Last year, the firm had nearly 200 interns in total, and its long-term goal is to convert 40% of its interns into full-time hires.

“We’ve continued to increase our commitment to the internship program and increase the number of available internships with the whole philosophy that we’re going to help build our own pipeline,” Stanek said. 

Wagner said it’s imperative that Milwaukee companies look locally for diverse talent.

“Utilize your HR dollars, your DEI dollars, your internship dollars,” she said. “It is so expensive to recruit diverse talent to Milwaukee. We have this whole pool of students in our own backyard. That’s who we should invest in. We have to rethink how we allocate those funds.”

Robledo completed an internship last summer with Core Creative, an advertising and branding agency in Walker’s Point, and this summer will intern with Baird in its public relations department. 

He is discerning where he wants to land in the industry after graduation, whether that be agency work or a more corporate setting. Either way, he sees himself staying in Milwaukee. 

“I feel like there’s still work to do here in Milwaukee, both for me as an individual and overall, socially, and what I want to contribute to this city,” he said.

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This article is part of a BizTimes Media Business Cares special report on education in Milwaukee, examining the issues and challenges the community faces to increase the number of high-quality education seats in the city and to develop young talent and the city’s future workforce.

The report includes:

An overview from BizTimes Media co-owners Dan and Kate Meyer

An explanation of what the difference is between Milwaukee’s public, charter and private (voucher) schools, and how many students attend each.

These feature articles:

And, viewpoints from leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools, a Milwaukee charter school and a Milwaukee private (voucher) school:

Look for more education coverage in the coming days and weeks at BizTimes.com.

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