How to Help Students in the Academic Middle Succeed

August 27, 2021

This is the last in a 4-part blog series focused on the interconnected elements that impact students who fall within the academic middle of their peers.

Over the last several months we’ve been looking at the challenges facing students in the academic middle. Our focus in this article is on solutions – ideas and approaches to lift students up and get results.

The “academic middle” is a significant focus of Capital Partners for Education. These are students whose GPA ranges from 2.3 to 3.1 ­– students on the cusp of college, but not quite there. Students in the academic middle are often ineligible for the support given to low-achieving students but also lack the opportunities offered to high-achievers, which inevitably puts them at risk of falling through the cracks.

These students face multiple challenges, which are deep and interconnected.

  • Income and geography. As of 2020 in Washington, D.C., only 16% of Ward 7 residents and 17% of Ward 8 residents had achieved a bachelor’s degree. We know, then, that geography and income are not only holding back the academic middle but affecting their path to economic mobility.
  • Racial bias and the widening racial wealth gap. As we wrote in our last post, the “graduation gap” between BIPOC and white students has grown to nearly 20%. The net worth of an average White family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family.
  • A lack of resources, attention, and focus. As we outlined in the first post in this series, these students require individual and specialized attention.

COVID has exacerbated these challenges significantly – this includes isolation and loss of learning but also enormous impacts on college enrollment and access. Community colleges have seen enrollment declines of nearly 20%. The University of the District of Columbia’s community college, a vital stepping stone to postsecondary education for the District’s Black and Brown low-income students, lost more than 15 percent of its student body last fall.

What’s worse, the social safety net in general is not designed for the many needs these students face. Students might qualify for college or professional education, but basic needs like housing, health care and child or elder care can prevent them from seizing hard-earned opportunities.

We’ve seen students get ahead and fall back, which hurts. But more importantly at CPE, we’ve seen students get ahead and stay there. We’ve seen solutions. Here’s how we can help students in the academic middle:

First, mentorship works – particularly for students of color and in neighborhoods facing the most significant challenges. Low-income, first-generation students are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions if they have a mentor. This is the heart of our work: 61 percent of CPE students have graduated from college compared with 21 percent of their similarly situated peers.

Mentorship also helps students overcome issues like imposter syndrome in feeling like they can’t pursue specific careers and gives them a sounding board to talk frankly about race.

Public investment in mentoring can help – we’ve advocated for government support and have been fortunate to have the District of Columbia support mentoring.

Second, direct aid for students is a lifeline. CPE has always made grants available to students. Since the pandemic began, CPE has provided more than $165K in emergency financial relief to students, for everything from food and rent to emergency tuition. These funds are critical.

Third, we can continue to build and improve our social infrastructure. President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda makes improvements to our safety net and includes child tax credits; however, what students like the ones we mentor need are more robust resources for affordable housing and child care to enable them to become economically mobile. Long term, that social infrastructure should include equal funding of schools and a level playing field for students of all backgrounds and geographies.

Lastly, there is support for the academic middle that goes beyond mentorship. The private sector has a huge role to play, by offering jobs, internships, externships, and opportunities for students to learn and grow. Even offering talks and lectures expose the academic middle to new ideas. And these kinds of connections can often mean the start of lifelong relationships with students.

A CPE student recently shared she is attending school to major in biology, with a dream of becoming a bilingual genetic counselor so that minority patients, specifically the Latinx community, don’t feel alienated at their own appointments due to a language barrier. She was lifted up by mentorship and the support of solutions like those outlined above.

Students in the academic middle can succeed – we’ve seen it and lived it. Read this series to learn more. And support CPE to help this essential work.