Part Three: The Graduation Gap
By Katie Thompson
[The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book on opportunity.]
Adam Ristick shouldn’t have graduated from college. In fact, he probably shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
Adam, now 24, came from a low-income family and knew very little about what life in college might look like.
“For me, this was all uncharted territory,” he said. “My first two years in high school, the idea of going to college was something that I wanted like everyone else, but as far as tangible Step A, Step B, I had no idea what that looked like.”
For students like Adam, a campus can feel so foreign and isolating that it ultimately leads to the conclusion that college isn’t for them.
And according to national statistics, that put Adam in a position to fail. Of high school students with similar GPAs (3.0 or higher), only 21 percent of low-income, first generation college students who enroll in university will earn a bachelor's degree after six years. For their high-income peers who had a parent go to college, that number is nearly four times higher at 77 percent.
But that’s where Act Six came in, introducing Adam to a network of relationships that would quite literally change his life. Act Six is a leadership development and scholarship program that walks with low-income students through the ups and downs of college. Currently partnering with eight colleges in the Pacific Northwest and three in the Midwest, the program focuses specifically on ensuring that students graduate.
“Access to higher education is a critical resource that needs to be distributed fairly,” Tim Herron, founder of Act Six and president of Degrees of Change, said.
Tim began his career as a teacher in 1994 and taught math in both middle and high school for several years. Many of his students applied and were accepted to college, but he soon noticed a disturbing trend — they weren’t staying there.
“I had really bright kids in my classroom and they worked really hard to get to college,” he said. “The assumption was that you’re on your way and you’re set.”
But Tim quickly learned that this assumption was wrong. Getting into college was only the first part of the battle that many low-income students face when they set out to complete a degree. Many are the first in their family to go to college and don’t know what to expect when they arrive on campus. Others struggle with cultural barriers, financial issues, and academics.
So when he launched Act Six as a partnership between the Northwest Leadership Foundation and Whitworth University, Tim knew that fostering community would be absolutely essential.
From February of their senior year of high school until the first day of college classes, Act Six students go through what Tim described as an intensive training program that meets weekly with a local Act Six mentor.
"They come to campus thinking not only do I belong here, but I have something really important to contribute to the campus and my community," he said. "This serves to help students persist when things get hard in college.”
For the next four years, Act Six students meet on a regular basis with a campus coordinator who supports and encourages their engagement with the college and with each other.
Adam graduated from Warner Pacific College in 2013, and now serves as the assistant director of Act Six in Portland. He’s working with students who share a very familiar past and who will face some of the same challenges he did.
Both Tim and Adam stressed that when they talk about the community coming around these students, they really do mean the entire community. Whether it’s local schools talking to students about college, churches stepping up to offer support, or even local businesses willing to hire students for internships — it’s a team effort.
"My mentor is white and has blonde hair and blue eyes — there are a lot of differences between us, but it wasn’t some book about leadership that changed my life, it was his willingness to invest in my story,” Adam said. “Don’t ever underestimate the power of relationships and the impact you can have on a young person’s life, regardless of skin color or where you come from.”