Nebraska academy offers more students a chance at college

Nebraska academy offers more students a chance at college

Scholars in the program outscore both state and national averages on the ACT college admissions test and have better college retention rates than other university students. Every graduate of the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy during the past six years has gone on to college.
Courtesy photo
Nebraska College Preparatory Academy students (from left) Edgar Ruiz-Guaderrama, Jissell Cruz and George Siliman, all 12th graders from Grand Island, work on their senior capstone research projects during a recent research bootcamp at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Nebraska College Preparatory Academy is 10 years old – and it's expanding.

Since 2006, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Office of Admissions has provided counselors, teachers and other staff to work with talented low-income first-generation students at Grand Island Public High School and, since 2008, Omaha North Magnet High School. Both are schools with significant populations of underrepresented minority students.

Scholars in the grant- and charitable contribution-funded program outscore both state and national averages on the ACT college admissions test. They have better college retention rates than other university students. And every single graduate of the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy during the past six years has gone on to college.

This kind of success helped persuade Omaha’s Sherwood Foundation to give a $2.5 million grant to expand the program to Omaha South Magnet School, which has a significant Hispanic student population. The academy also will be offered at Winnebago School, which predominantly serves Native students. Adding the new schools will make the program available to roughly twice as many students during the next four years.

What makes the academy different from other college access programs? It starts early – students are chosen as they finish the eighth grade; it is academically rigorous – students must take advanced courses and maintain a 3.25 grade point average throughout high school; and it provides a suite of wrap-around services – summer school, college camps, tutoring, leadership development, community involvement, even counseling for students facing personal issues.

Not to mention full ride scholarships (including grant aid) to the university for students who successfully complete the program. Omaha students also have the option for a scholarship to Metropolitan Community College.

Chancellor Ronnie Green thanked the Sherwood Foundation for its support and welcomed the two new schools joining the academy. He said the expansion advances the university’s priorities for growth.

“Offering this program is a step toward our goals of getting more students on the path to college and of creating an increasingly diverse student body,” Green said. “The Nebraska College Preparatory Academy opens doors of opportunity to low-income students who would be the first in their families to attend college. It also helps make the University of Nebraska a distinctive 21st century campus, where students and scholars from a variety of socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds study and learn together.”

The university's success in meeting its enrollment goals depends in part upon its ability to attract a larger share of minority students. Nebraska's Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education predicts that the underrepresented minorities will make up an increasing share of the state’s high school graduates during the next five years. Yet ACT estimates show that only half may meet Nebraska's admissions requirements.

Organizers believe they have developed a strategy that can significantly improve the college-going rate for underrepresented minority students, low-income students and first-generation students.

“Many people have tried many different ways to attract first-generation, low-income students and improve the college pipeline,” said Admissions Director Amber Williams, who led the development of the academy and is its director. “I am not aware of another program in the country that provides this kind of comprehensive approach.”

Scholars scored an average of 24 on last year’s ACT, the third consecutive annual increase and significantly higher than the state average of 21.5 and the national average of 21. During the past four years, more than 92 percent of academy scholars have completed their freshman year of college and returned for their second year, compared with an 82.5 percent freshman retention rate for the university as a whole. The scholars also exceed university averages in returning for third and fourth years of college. Since 2011, 167 out of 167 academy graduates have enrolled in college, most of them at Nebraska.

There is more work to be done. The program is small, with 26 graduates last spring and a combined total of about 160 students now enrolled from Grand Island and Omaha North.

Less than a third of the program’s first cohort, which started college in 2010, graduated within six years -- though graduation rates for the 2011 and 2012 cohorts appear to be ticking upward as a result of additional retention services.

Officials at Omaha South and Winnebago said they hope the academy will help their students break down barriers that prevent them from attending college.

“In its 10-year history, the program has successfully engaged students at Grand Island High School and Omaha North High School that represent populations that traditionally may not have had access to higher education,” said Ruben Cano, principal at Omaha South. “Through the expansion of this program to Omaha South, we will continue to offer supports to our students that will help them with their college endeavors.”

Cheryl Burrell, assistant superintendent for Winnebago Public School, said the academy will strongly complement a similar program the district now offers its students. Students chosen for the Winnebago Academy start doing high-school level work in the seventh grade with an aim toward completing the high school curriculum in the 10th grade. Students spend 11th and 12th grades on college credit coursework through Little Priest Tribal College.

In addition to easing the financial burden of college, the academy helps students feel they belong on campus, she said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students,” Burrell said. “One of the reasons we wanted to participate in the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy is that our students graduate from high school and go to college – but they don’t stay there. They come home. They have a strong cultural connection to their families and it’s hard for them to leave.”