Educators seek ways to fix Milwaukee’s leaky pipeline to college graduation

It was during her junior year at James Madison High School in Milwaukee that Decarieana Ozier came to a striking realization: Many of her friends would not be going to college. 

At her school, Ozier said it seemed like students were sorted into two categories: those who were deemed college-ready, and those who were not. With a 4.0 GPA, Ozier was part of the former cohort, which she said received special attention like academic advising and class parties. But the latter group was left adrift, she says. 

“(Some friends) told me they didn’t feel smart enough or that they didn’t have the money for college,” Ozier said. “It was so unfair.”

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Some of her fellow classmates went straight into the workforce after high school, Ozier said. Others just dropped out. 

Undergirding Ozier’s story are sobering statistics about the reality of Milwaukee’s K-12 through college pipeline. Less than 50% of graduates from public high schools in Milwaukee enroll in postsecondary education immediately following graduation, and only one-third of college students in the region graduate within the expected time frame, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. 

This trend – driven by financial limitations, subpar academic preparedness, socio-emotional challenges and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic – has negative implications not only for the students who fall behind, but also for the local workforce and economy. 

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It’s what Mark Mone, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, describes as a “vicious cycle.” 

“Public education is the foundation of democracy,” Mone said. “If Wisconsin doesn’t have well-educated and trained employees, then we won’t be able to attract and retain companies, and the economy won’t strengthen, and we’ll be left behind.”

To fortify what the Policy Forum’s December 2022 College Material report deems a “leaky” education pipeline from high school to college, Wisconsin higher education institutions are shifting from a culture of competition towards collaboration with each other and nonprofit organizations. 

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Keith Posley, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools; Vicki Martin, president of Milwaukee Area Technical College; and Mark Mone, chancellor of UWM, have joined forces under an initiative known as M³ to improve educational outcomes among MPS students.
Keith Posley, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools; Vicki Martin, president of Milwaukee Area Technical College; and Mark Mone, chancellor of UWM, have joined forces under an initiative known as M³ to improve educational outcomes among MPS students.
Credit: Elora Hennessey, UWM Photo Services

Changing a business model 

Now in her second semester of Lakeland University’s Milwaukee Co-Op year, Ozier plans to pursue degrees in zoology, business and art. The tuition-free Milwaukee Co-Op program combines college courses with part-time paid work at area employers. 

“Lakeland’s Milwaukee campus is right by the zoo. … I see myself working there and finding out new things about animals,” Ozier said. 

During her first semester of the program, Ozier developed a community library at a local resource center for children.

“I realized that the kids didn’t have a library, but they had piles and piles of books,” Ozier said, adding that after working with the center’s budget and building shelves, she “took the time to organize them all from A through Z.”

An extension of Lakeland’s Cooperative Education program, the Milwaukee Co-op year provides students with a 100% tuition-funded first year of college, along with tuition-funded “pathways” for a second, third and fourth year. After year one, students have several options in front of them, including earning a two-year or four-year degree from Lakeland in Milwaukee or at Lakeland’s main campus in Sheboygan County; transferring to another college such as MATC; or continuing into the workforce.

Borgen
Borgen

Beth Borgen, president of Lakeland University, is a firm believer that high school graduates shouldn’t have to choose between work and college. With Milwaukee Co-Op, there’s a way to do both. 

“We’ve completely changed our business model to build risk-free pathways for students who otherwise may not have considered college,” said Borgen. “We created a daytime experience in Milwaukee, where a cohort of students come together and have breakfast in the morning with a faculty member who then helps get them off to work. As part of the program, they are aligned with employers, earn credit and also take a couple classes.” 

The Milwaukee Co-Op program is just one of many initiatives that have taken shape in recent years to close the widening gaps in college enrollment and completion among Milwaukee’s youth. 

A completion crisis  

Although overall high school completion rates for Milwaukee students steadily increased to 70% in 2019, that progress appears to have been reversed over the course of the pandemic, as completion rates dropped to 64% in 2021, according to the Policy Forum report, which used data from the state Department of Public Instruction on public schools in Milwaukee, including district and charter schools. 

When it comes to the next step in the pipeline, enrollment in college, the data shows a drop-off like that of high school completion rates. The cohort of Milwaukee students completing high school in four years in 2021 saw approximately 37.3% of its members enroll in a college by the first fall after graduation. That’s below pre-pandemic levels, the highest of which was 48.5% in 2017. 

Explaining the crisis of high school completion and college enrollment is no simple task, yet experts offer gaps in the labor market as an important factor.  

“With unemployment at historic lows in recent years, the strong labor market may have lowered the real or perceived need for further education in the eyes of high school graduates and lured them directly into the workforce,” the Policy Forum states.

It’s for that reason that Mone noted, “the mindset around going to college has to start really young.” 

“Right now, you can earn $35,000 – $45,000 a year right out of high school. But in reality, if you want to have stability in your life and maybe even raise a family, that’s not a lot of money, and you’re capped without further education,” he said. “We know that individuals with college degrees earn twice the amount what high school graduates earn over a lifetime.”

Allison Wagner (center) with All-In Milwaukee scholars and Marquette University seniors Ana Angeles (left) and Maryann Jimenez.
Allison Wagner (center) with All-In Milwaukee scholars and Marquette University seniors Ana Angeles (left) and Maryann Jimenez.
Credit: All-In Milwaukee

Even if a high school student has a strong support system, it’s a lot of work to matriculate through the education pipeline, said Allison Wagner, founding executive director of nonprofit All-In Milwaukee. 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.

“All of the financial aspects, the social and cultural challenges and academic preparation, there are just so many pieces of it,” Wagner said. 

A separate Wisconsin Policy Forum report in April 2022 determined that state lawmakers have not prioritized financial aid in recent state budgets. The report also found that Wisconsin was trailing other states in how much it spends on financial aid grants per student. In 2020, the state spent $541 per undergraduate student, almost half the national average of $980.

“The price of college has skyrocketed 150% since 1980 and Pell Grants cover far less than what they used to. And here in Wisconsin, what we see is the average college student graduates with $32,000 in debt,” Wagner said. 

In addition, although the data shows recent improvements, the lowest rates of degree completion are found among students enrolled in degree or certificate programs of fewer than four years, Pell Grant recipients, male students, Black students and Hispanic students.

To bolster the overall odds of degree completion for those groups of students, education leaders say financial and emotional support are key. 

‘Committed to each other’ 

As Lakeland’s head leader, Borgen abides by her “three C’s” – college, career and community. But there’s another ‘C’ she’s been working on in recent years.

“We’re all competing for students,” Borgen said. “But I don’t want to compete, I want to collaborate.” 

Collaboration was not always a strategy for colleges and universities in the region, Mone said. 

“We were an island. We didn’t reach out to other colleges or high schools, and we didn’t care,” Mone said. 

That changed in 2014, when the leaders of UWM, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Milwaukee Public Schools joined forces for the first time. 

“We were all new and started the same month of July of 2014, so we sat down, had breakfast and started talking about our hopes and dreams for the city and for our students,” said Vicki Martin, president of MATC. “We asked, ‘How can we make sure that we take care of those leaks between our three institutions, where we’re the three largest public institutions with the most student diversity?’” 

From those queries, (pronounced M-cubed) was born. 

“We are committed to each other,” Mone said. “We took a blood oath, cut our hands and shook them. I can show you my scar.” 

In the beginning, leaders of the three institutions were worried about competing for students, or whether the program would take away from donors; instead, M³ has allowed its members to “come together to tackle tough problems,” Martin said. 

Those tough problems include the cost of college.

“We’re half the price of a four-year public institution, but it’s still too much,” said Martin. “It turns out as little as $100 can have a student actually drop out of classes.”

Through M³’s dual enrollment College Connections program, which officially launched in 2017, MPS students take college classes and earn college credits while still in high school. It works like this: MPS provides lunches and pays for the College Connections classes; MATC provides bus passes for all students and offers math and science courses; and UWM provides classes in social studies, psychology and other subjects. 

The College Connections program has grown from 32 students in 2019 to 152 students representing 21 MPS schools in 2022. Last year’s graduating class collectively earned 1,840 college credits. At an average of $300 per credit, students saved $552,000 in college tuition. Since the inaugural graduating class in 2019, more than 400 students have earned a total of 5,002 college credits through College Connections, saving a collective $1.5 million, said Keith Posley, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.

“One of our top priorities in Milwaukee Public Schools is to move students toward meaningful career paths,” said John Hill, director of college and career readiness for MPS. “More than 70% of students who participate in the M³ College Connections program enroll in postsecondary institutions within one year of high school graduation, which exceeds district, state and national rates.” 

To that end, students and employers can benefit from work-based learning experiences like internships, apprenticeships, student teaching and clinical experiences, said M³ leaders. During the 2019-’20 school year, nearly 6,000 students across the three M³ institutions took part in work-based learning opportunities at partner employers, such as We Energies. 

But every year, 10% to 40% of high school seniors in the United States who planned to go to college in the fall never enroll, according to Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research. To address what experts call the “summer melt,” M³ offers Smart Start, which provides MPS high school seniors who are planning to attend UWM or MATC support through the admissions process, summer bridge programming and co-curricular activities during their first semester in college. 

Throughout the process, it is important to include family, especially for students whose parents have not attended college, Mone said. Facilitated by MPS counselors with the support of MPS parent coordinators, the Milwaukee Parent Institute addresses just that. Sessions were held at 26 high school sites over the past several years, serving more than 1,000 parents. Topics of the sessions range from creating a supportive home learning environment and nurturing socio-emotional development to filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is a prerequisite for federal grants, work study and loans. Recently, M³ has looked to expand the Milwaukee Parent Institute to middle schools. 

UWM stands out among UW campuses for having large numbers of students of color, students with military or veteran status and undergraduates receiving Pell Grants for low-income students. But UWM graduates also have higher debt levels than the UW System as a whole, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Milwaukee nonprofits are going all in 

“We need to see more universities recognizing how expensive college has gotten and how unattainable that is for so many students,” said Wagner of All-In Milwaukee. “The best programs are those that clearly lay out what students need to be successful.” 

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report breaks down those needs as academic readiness, financial resources and sense of belonging. In 2021, the forum documented qualitative data on a common perception that the culture of four-year campuses “generally do not understand or adequately take into account the needs of students of color, multilingual students, first generation college students, and those from low-income families.” 

These challenges have led nonprofits, like All-In Milwaukee, to offer scholarships, FAFSA completion support, academic preparation and models that bolster students’ sense of belonging. 

Adrian Mora on the job as an intern for Baird Advisors in 2021.
Adrian Mora on the job as an intern for Baird Advisors in 2021.
Credit: All-In Milwaukee

Ninety percent of All-In Milwaukee scholars graduate with zero debt, Wagner said. Adrian Mora, a senior at Marquette University, is one of those scholars. 

“When I first saw the price of college, I was like, ‘There’s no way either me or my parents can afford to put me through even one year,” said Mora, a first-generation college student. Through All-In Milwaukee, Mora is graduating debt-free with a full-time job at Milwaukee-based Baird Advisors. 

“When you’re navigating from high school to college, it’s a big culture shock,” Mora added. “But you’d be surprised by how many people share the same struggles that you have. You’ll never find help if you don’t reach out.”

Another example of a nonprofit organizing itself around the “leaky Milwaukee education pipeline” issue is the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, through its Graduation Plus College Access and Success program. The program provides support and mentorship to more than 800 high school and college students annually, boasting a 100% high school graduation rate for participants, according to its website. 

For its report, the Policy Forum surveyed a total of 13 local nonprofit organizations that offer programs addressing various stages of the city’s education pipeline from high school completion through college, including College Possible Milwaukee, Future Urban Leaders, the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, PEARLS for Teen Girls, SecureFutures and YWCA of Metro Milwaukee, just to name a few. 

That’s in addition to 12 programs run by higher education institutions and four run by other entities, such as Milwaukee Public Schools and Employ Milwaukee. Together, the 29 program providers that participated in the survey serve approximately 24,800 high school-age students and 9,100 college-age students per year, according to the report.  

Room for improvement

However, the data suggests that even more students could benefit. One-third of the programs included in the Policy Forum survey are currently unable to serve all interested students; another third is currently underutilized. 

In addition, some of the barriers that students face – food insecurity for example – are outside the scope of what some programs can do. Additionally, while those programs target either low-income or high-achieving students, there are students who may not fit the definition of “low income” yet still struggle to afford college, and there are students who may not fit the definition of “high achieving” yet still can succeed academically. 

Addressing these issues will likely require greater coordination and partnership between providers, and acknowledgement of the yet unmet need to efficiently redirect funds, the Policy Forum report reads. To bridge the gaps between students and the local landscape of post-secondary readiness programming, the report recommends minimizing competition in student recruitment efforts; expanding diversity recruitment by adapting eligibility requirements; and getting the word out about the effectiveness and quality of programs.

“We have to partner in ways that have never been heard of before,” Martin said.

____

Programs working to fix Milwaukee’s education pipeline
Researchers at the Wisconsin Policy Forum identified 60 programs working to help students with postsecondary readiness or success. Twenty-nine of those programs participated in a survey for the report. The list of respondents provides a snapshot of the range of groups working to improve outcomes in the city. 

Program

Housed At

Serving High School or College Students

Students Served 

All-In Milwaukee

Nonprofit

College

320

Boys and Girls Clubs Graduation Plus
College Access and Success Program

Nonprofit

Both

670 

College Possible Milwaukee

Nonprofit

Both

1,850 

Concordia University–Wisconsin First-Year
Bridge Program

Higher Ed

College

80 

Concordia University–Wisconsin Unlimited
Potential Scholars

Higher Ed

College

10 

Employ Milwaukee 

Other

Both

1,000 

Future Urban Leaders

Nonprofit

Both

40 

“I Have a Dream” Foundation Milwaukee 

Nonprofit

Both

25 

Jobs for America’s Graduates

Nonprofit

High School

50 

Journey House THRIVE Career Pathways

Nonprofit

Both

340 

Marquette University Educational
Opportunity Program

Higher Ed

Both

800 

M3 College Connections

Other

High School

1,000 

Milwaukee School of Engineering Carter Academy

Higher Ed

College

90 

MKE Fellows (ALIVE Inc. Milwaukee) 

Nonprofit

High School

190 

Mount Mary Grace Scholars

Higher Ed

College

80 

MPS College and Career Centers

Other

Both

10,850 

PEARLS for Teen Girls College and Career
Coach Program

Nonprofit

High School

1,200 

Schuler Scholar Program

Nonprofit

Both

1,000 

SecureFutures

Nonprofit

Both

4,300 

United Community Center Pre-College Program

Nonprofit

Both

780 

UW–Madison Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE)

Hgher Ed

Both

 1,125 

UWM Black Student Cultural Center

Higher Ed

Both

2,600 

UWM Future Success Program

Higher Ed

High School

110 

UWM Roberto Hernández Center

Higher Ed

Both

1,900 

UWM Upward Bound

Higher Ed

High School

50 

UWM Upward Bound Math and Science

Higher Ed

High School

60 

UW–Parkside Promise Plus

Higher Ed

College

120 

Wisconsin Educational Opportunity Programs (DPI)

Other

High School

3,000 

YWCA of Metro Milwaukee Teen Achievers Program

Nonprofit

High School

50

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