First Kauffman Scholars prepare to graduate May 20, 2013

The middle of Cristina Ortiz’s sophomore year, it hit her.

Despair? Or maybe fear? Certainly a crisis of confidence.

I can’t be an engineer.

“I reached a point where I stopped believing in myself,” she said.

Many other students like her in the first class of Kauffman Scholars — students from low-income households, many trying to be the first of their family to get a college degree — scraped against the same crippling reef.

Now in their senior years of college, more than half of the 125 in the first class have fallen out of college or are not on pace to graduate within five years.

From the moment the foundation launched its first class as seventh-graders in 2003, it knew the critical measure of its investment would come now, 10 years later.

“The big lesson is that there is a difference between getting access to college and completion,” said Aaron North, director of education for the Kauffman Foundation.

“How are they finishing? Are we setting them up for completion? Because completion is the goal.”

Changes are underway to try to improve the program’s record. Seven more classes are following in turn, with the last class, eighth-graders this year, projected to be college seniors in 2021. The program will be more controlling on the college choices they make. And more efforts are coming to strengthen their college preparedness.

The foundation is investing $70 million in some 1,100 students over the 19-year course of the project, providing academic tutoring, life coaching, college prep and financial support in an attempt to help students beat poverty’s long odds.

Program leaders knew it would be hard for many students and families. They’ve tried to keep that cocoon of support strong through college to get students through their crises.

The way they helped Ortiz.

“Other people believed in me,” said Ortiz, who graduated Friday from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a bachelor’s of science degree in electrical and computer engineering.

“Other people believed in me and it really helped.”

Forty-six of the 125 Kauffman Scholars are graduating or are on track to graduate by next year. That is a better success rate than most low-income students trying to complete college degrees.

National research by the Pathways to Postsecondary Success project at UCLA paints a grim picture. According to the 2012 report, 47 percent of students in poverty do not get access to post-secondary education, compared to 24 percent of students not in poverty.

Of those students who do enter college, 28 percent of students in poverty earn bachelor’s degrees, compared to 53 percent for students not in poverty.

The education system, as a whole, continues to bare what the report called “persistent inequities,” said lead researcher Cynthia Feliciano at the University of California, Irvine.

“Major leaks” in the college pipeline continue to reproduce “social class,” the report concluded.

“There have to be multiple efforts to help low-income students succeed,” Feliciano said. “Because there are multiple challenges these students face.”

The Kauffman Foundation did well getting its first class access to college, but it wants to do better in the number who earn degrees.

For new college students, the program will limit college choices. It is setting up a network of institutions, public and private, 10 in Kansas and 10 in Missouri, that students will choose from.

It has made changes in staff. Ten positions, out of 47, were eliminated.

The program wants to ensure that its counselors have stronger collaboration with schools that have the best support on campus for low-income and multicultural students, said Jabari Turner, the executive director of Kauffman Scholars.

“We’re going to be more intrusive,” Turner said.

But the program also is looking at ways to help students become more independent as they prepare for college.

Counselors want to give students and their parents more responsibility in developing strong college-going habits.

“One of the major lessons we’ve learned is that they relied heavily on us as a crutch,” Turner said. “We need to prepare them … to be relentlessly resourceful.”

Raychel DeLap hopes to see a better college outcome for her daughter, a Kauffman Scholar entering the University of Kansas this fall.

Her son, a member of the first Kauffman Scholar class, fell out of college.

The counselors, with the parents, must be stronger in making sure students have a plan for what they will do in college, DeLap said.

“They get excited about picking a college and say, ‘Yeah, I want to go there!’” she said. “But what do you want to do there? The child has to have an interest in what they really, really want to do.”

When the reality hits, first-generation college students have to have the right mindset, said Chelsia Potts, a counselor in UMKC’s multicultural affairs office.

She knows, she said. She was a first-generation student from the Paseo Academy for Fine and Performing Arts.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and is now pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration at UMKC, but there was a time when she felt she didn’t belong.

She has worked with several Kauffman Scholars at UMKC and other students, and she knows some who dropped out.

She sees the warning signs if they become disengaged. They start missing counselor sessions, shrug off conversations about grades and plans.

“I tell them, ‘You have the right to be here like everyone else,’” she said. They have to fight “the mindset” that says, “I can’t do it.”

Ortiz was thinking that switching to an easier major might help. She contemplated studying criminal justice.

But she talked with Turner, her Kauffman coach at the time, and met with Potts and others who helped her gather her resolve.

She made it through that sophomore year. Her grades came back good. One more semester down, she thought.
I can pull it off.

Last year, she took a chance and applied for a summer internship with NASA. It was a competitive process. “I didn’t think I was qualified,” she said.
But she got it. That’s when she finally believed she was an engineer.

Meanwhile, the second class of Kauffman Scholars are sophomores now. (The program did not introduce a class in 2004.) And 102 of the original 152 in the second class are still enrolled in a post-secondary program.

Ortiz wants to help them, she said. She’s eager to encourage others as she was encouraged. And her school, UMKC, is planning to add peer mentoring for the Kauffman Scholars coming through its campus.

Further down the line, students in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., high schools are getting more training in schedule planning and time management
“We want academic endurance and perseverance,” Kauffman coach Nicole Jacobs-Silvey said. “How are you resilient?”
In the end, the Kauffman Scholars program wants to help shape a successful approach for everyone trying to help more students earn the opportunities that come with college degrees.

“Hopefully lives have been changed,” Turner said. “Trajectories have been changed.”

The Kansas City Star

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to


One Comments
Kathryn Toure October 20th, 2013

May 25, 2013
Dear Editor of The Kansas City Star,
Re: Kauffman scholars
I appreciated the May 20 article on the Kauffman scholars, “Scholars near finish line.” Congratulations to all those who will soon graduate from college and to all those who have decided to pursue other trajectories.
I appreciated hearing about the support to the scholars by encouraging college preparedness, providing training in schedule planning and time management and facilitating strong on- and off-campus support, and, in the case of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, providing opportunities for peer mentoring.
Education is a dialogue in which scholars can do better, as can the institutions seeking to provide quality and relevant education. So I was wondering what the participating institutions of higher learning might have learned through participation in the program.
In which directions is teaching being adjusted? What kinds of insights are there about changes to the curriculum?
In what modest ways are the scholars showing how the educational system might evolve and thus not just learning but also shaping the future?
Kathryn Toure
Lenexa, Kansas, USA

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