This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Antoinette Barnes graduated as salutatorian from University City High School and received the Brook J. Lenfest Scholarship, an award given to low-income graduates from the School District of Philadelphia to attend college. With it she could have attended Temple University or the Pennsylvania State University.
She chose Temple.
Like most Philadelphia public school graduates who attend two- or four-year institutions, Barnes, 20, enrolled nearby.
Though she also considered going to a smaller college outside of the city, she says that she made the right choice.
“It was really close to home,” says Barnes. “And I chose a school that wouldn’t be a burden on my family. Everything was free at Temple.”
Local colleges have mass appeal for District students for a number of reasons. Some students choose to stay in the vicinity because of family and jobs. Others select nearby campuses because of cost factors.
New School District data obtained by the Notebook show that half of District graduates who enrolled in college attended either the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), Temple, or Penn State.
According to a separate study by OMG Center for Collaborative Learning of 2003-09 graduates, a full 87 percent attended in-state schools.
“At some local schools, there are really great opportunities,” says Ann-Therese Ortiz, director of Philadelphia Futures’ Sponsor-A-Scholar Program, pointing to the bevy of scholarships and programs available to District students.
“But oftentimes what can happen is circumstances in a student’s life and family might dictate that they stay closer to home. It can be discouraging when it’s a matter of circumstance rather than choice or fit,” she says.
How well students fare once they enroll at these area schools varies widely. For Philadelphia’s high school class of 2004, degree completion rates within six years ranged from a high of 68 percent for Temple to a mere 3 percent for students who attended the University of Phoenix.
And though they are extremely popular among area graduates, gaining access to local and Pennsylvania schools could become difficult. Huge cuts to education proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett could raise tuition at these public and state-funded institutions, making schools like Penn State, Temple, and CCP less appealing and affordable to students like Barnes.
Barnes lives on Temple’s North Philadelphia campus even though her family’s West Philadelphia home is just miles away. The Lenfest scholarship includes housing costs, and for Barnes dorm life is an important part of the college experience.
“I come from a large family, and I felt like being able to live on campus, I could feel more independent,” she says.
“I think that living at home would have been a big distraction.”
Barnes long had her heart set on college even though she knew that most of her classmates would never make it. She took advanced placement classes in high school and worked with the White Williams Scholars Program and Philadelphia Futures to secure funding, find summer enrichment programs, and obtain guidance through the college application process.
“A high school education is nothing any more, so both organizations made it clear how important college was to making a better future,” she says.
Barnes works in the same Temple summer bridge program that she participated in before her first year in college. In 2010, 108 of the 369 School District of Philadelphia first-year students at Temple took part. Temple has the highest retention rate (92 percent) for District students who immediately enroll in college, according to the OMG study.
“I think when we started over 125 years ago, the university was looking for diamonds in its backyard,” says Karin West Mormando, Temple’s director of admissions.
Temple has a number of scholarships for District students and a dual admissions program that allows students to earn entry through CCP. According to Mormando, 1,500 students have enrolled through the program since it was established in 1998.
“We offer a large comprehensive research experience right in their backyard. It keeps them close to home, but gives them the opportunity to do whatever they would like to do academically and socially,” says Mormando.
The Pennsylvania State University
Crystal Crawford, 18, had brand-new family obligations when she became pregnant, and her outlook on college changed. Crawford wanted to attend college away from home and experience dorm life. The first-year student instead decided to attend nearby Penn State Abington and now lives with her boyfriend and 11-month-old daughter.
“I was sure that I was going to college,” says Crawford.
She did consider going part-time or waiting a semester. “But I didn’t. I started right away.”
Crawford, who is the first person in her family to go to college, is a native of the Cayman Islands and moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to live with her grandmother and attend Fels High School.
At Fels, she says, “it was hard to learn during class because there was always some drama.” But she found support through Philadelphia Futures and credits the organization with teaching her how to write and making her write a lot.
According to Penn State, 472 Philadelphia public school graduates enrolled in one of Penn State’s 20 campuses in 2009, out of over 15,000 first-year students total. Both the Brandywine and Abington campuses are within commuting distance of the city.
“We have some outstanding campuses and universities throughout the commonwealth, which provide great opportunities,” says Anne Rohrbach, executive director for undergraduate admissions at Penn State.
“If they don’t want to stay in Philadelphia, there are a lot of campuses they can choose from. Or they can commute from home.”
Penn State maintains a recruiting office across from City Hall. University representatives visit career fairs, high schools, and District events year-round.
Rohrbach says that the declining population in Western Pennsylvania makes Philadelphia all the more important to Penn State recruitment efforts.
Echoing that thought is James Begany, associate vice president for enrollment management at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). “It’s one of the few growing areas of Pennsylvania, and that’s important to us as we recruit. Western Pennsylvania is shrinking,” says Begany. IUP is the fourth most chosen school among District graduates, and the number of Philadelphia students there has grown sharply.
Community College of Philadelphia
Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), like community colleges nationwide, plays a crucial role in supporting students with academic and financial challenges, and 32 percent of all District graduates who attend college enroll at CCP.
“We have students who really struggled graduating from high school, and didn’t take the SAT and ACT. This is a place they can get a second chance,” says Admissions Director Luke Kasim.
“Our students have the ability to graduate with an associate’s or B.A. with very little or no debt at all.”
CCP offers different things to different students. Some come for an associate’s degree, some to transfer to a four-year university, and others just take a few classes to advance their careers.
But according to new data released by the District, surprisingly few Philadelphia public school graduates actually earn a degree at CCP. Just 17 percent of the more than 2,100 graduates of the class of 2004 students who enrolled at CCP had gotten a degree six years later.
Many who enroll are students who had trouble at a four-year institution. While dual admissions programs with Temple and Drexel offer some students a path to a university, the OMG study found that more students transferred from a four-year to a two-year school than the other way around.
Results may vary
According to the data just released by the District, just 57 percent of District students from the high school class of 2004 who enrolled at Penn State earned a degree within 6 years. But that still outstripped the results from other state colleges like IUP and West Chester. The local historically Black colleges and universities had abysmal degree attainment rates for Philadelphia graduates: 39 percent at Lincoln University and 26 percent at Cheyney University.
Crawford says getting to the finish line can be challenging, especially when there are pressures at home vying for your attention.
“You have your friends here and responsibilities at home. Some people are taking care of a household, so you’re not just away at a college campus,” she says.
“I’m under so much pressure and it’s easy to have that thought that I should just give up. But I think to myself [about] why I’m here, I look at my daughter, and know why I’m here. What am I going to do, get an $8-an-hour job?”