By Kadesha Thomas
Photo by Jason Smith

We need to stay connected, because we understand the long-term commitment of overcoming barriers to get to college and succeed.”
—Allen L. Linton II
alumnus, Collegiate Scholars Program

Kim Ransom was concerned about her former student’s Facebook status: “I hope this semester goes better than the last.” As executive director of the University of Chicago Collegiate Scholars Program, Ransom had helped the student get into college. Now, during his sophomore year, his grades were slipping, despite studying for seven to eight hours a day.

His struggle reminded Ransom of her own trials back in undergrad at Bradley University in Peoria. She was a high-achieving high school student, but by her junior year of college, her grade point average had plummeted.

“I would be in my room, knowing there was a test tomorrow, see the book on my desk and walk right by it,” Ransom recalled. “I had relationship stuff going on, I didn’t like my major, and I felt disconnected, like ‘why am I here?’” Ransom’s aunt gave her the same admonishment that she gave the struggling student when he visited over winter break: Don’t give up.

As Ransom relayed her personal story to the student, it dawned on her — even after completing the Collegiate Scholars Program and going on to college, “the students still need us.”

A broken pipeline

The Collegiate Scholars Program, part of the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement, has groomed more than 294 students from Chicago Public Schools for competitive four-year universities. The three-year program, beginning the summer after freshman year of high school, exposes students to college life through undergraduate courses and career exploration programs in law, business, and medical research at the University of Chicago. The program also shepherds students through the college and scholarship application process.

Though 100 percent of the Collegiate Scholars Program students go on to college, Ransom’s realization that students need additional help in college is well documented. Only about 8 percent of Chicago Public School students earned four-year degrees by age 25, according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, a campus-based think tank on public education in Chicago. Even students with above average grades and advanced placement course work suffer in college. An analysis of Illinois high achieving public school students found that these students average less than a 3.0 GPA after freshman year at the state’s universities and community colleges, according to an August 2011 report in the Chicago Tribune. Students who maintained a 3.37 GPA in high school average a 2.78 as freshman in Illinois four-year public universities.

Collegiate Scholars Alumni Network

Ransom’s answer to this problem is the Collegiate Scholars Alumni Network (CAN), a new arm of the Collegiate Scholars Program with a cluster of programs for alumni. CAN’s primary goals are to offer peer-to-peer mentorship between alumni who are already in college and current students or recent graduates who are on their way and provide ongoing alumni networking and professional development opportunities at events sponsored by the Collegiate Scholars Program.

In October 2011, the Collegiate Scholars Program sponsored CAN Reach Out, a pilot initiative that matched current students with undergraduate alumni at colleges where they planned to apply. The students were able to reach out to the alumni with questions about applying to school, campus life and transitioning from high school to college. Ransom hopes to enhance the connections next year to include campus visits. “This is creating a portal for our students to connect with someone on campus who comes from familiar place,” Ransom said.

CAN Connect is the network’s nationwide effort to launch alumni groups at the 94 schools where Collegiate Scholars Program alumni attend. These alumni groups will meet regularly to guide each other through their schools’ academic coursework and campus life, organize service projects and offer emotional support, particularly to first-year students.

For purpose and passion

Ransom expects these CAN initiatives to address the central reason behind high-achieving high school students devolving to below average performance in college. “It’s the difference between going to college for survival versus purpose,” Ransom said. About 88 percent of the students in the Collegiate Scholars Program are African American, Latino, or Asian, and are still entrenched in a culture of survival. “We are told that you cannot go to college just to cultivate yourself. Go to become a lawyer, be a doctor, work at a financial institution and make your family proud. Impact the world? No, you better impact your pocket book.”

“Then, you go to college and you are painstakingly not plugged into your passion,” Ransom added. “You’re excited about going to college and meeting new people, but this business degree? Not so excited about that, because there is no connection to your purpose. That makes it hard to succeed. We’re trying to tear back this notion of survival and help students support each other in discovering their purpose through education, enrichment and civic engagement.”

Six Collegiate Scholars Program alumni have been tapped to lead CAN as executive board members. The Executive Board held its first event in December 2011, a holiday mixer that brought together nearly 50 alumni. Some were still in undergrad, while others were in graduate school or working professionals. “CAN will provide a way to network and offer support during the pit falls,” said Allen L. Linton, II, an alumni of the Collegiate Scholars Program who attended Morgan Park High School on Chicago’s South Side. Linton is one of 14 Collegiate Scholars Program students who attended the University of Chicago. He completed his undergraduate degree in political science in June 2011 on a full scholarship and is now in the first year of doctoral studies in political science at the University.

Linton said the Collegiate Scholars Program eased the transition to college by exposing him to college courses, introducing him to people with different backgrounds, and leveling the playing field for students from Chicago Public Schools. CAN takes that support a step further. “It helps students figure out what to do and what not to do when they get on campus, how to pursue the careers they are interested in and tell each other about this opportunity or that fellowship. We need to stay connected, because we understand the long-term commitment of overcoming barriers to get to college and succeed.”