Addressing college costs and accessibility through dual-enrollment innovation
An expansion of La Salle’s dual-enrollment programs presents opportunities for Philadelphia high-school students.
By Christopher A. Vito
Photography by Dan Nguyen
Joelle Lewis-Taliaferro fiddled with the papers in front of her, neatly sorting them into a pile. Then she removed and replaced the cap on her pen. Lewis-Taliaferro, an 11th-grader, said she was feeling uneasy. That’s a bit understandable. After all, this was her first visit to a college campus—even if it only required a short commute from nearby Central High School, where Lewis-Taliaferro is enrolled.
On this late-August night, Lewis-Taliaferro waited in La Salle University’s Union Ballroom, along with upper-level high school students just like her, to learn more about the University’s dual-enrollment programs.
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking, to say the least, but I’m ready,” said Lewis-Taliaferro, of Northwest Philadelphia.
Lewis-Taliaferro is one of 65 high school students from Philadelphia public, archdiocesan, and charter schools who are participating this fall in La Salle University’s dual-enrollment programs.
For more than 40 years, La Salle has delivered various dual-enrollment initiatives aimed at bringing upper-level high school students to the University’s campus to preview the college experience and earn college credit while simultaneously completing their high school curriculum. Throughout, participants learn from La Salle’s instructors and receive the same academic support services from which La Salle’s full-time students benefit.
Currently, the University is developing another program—La Salle Early Achievement Program (LEAP)—that reimagines and expands upon La Salle’s existing suite of dual-enrollment programs, while also incorporating a system of employer partnerships and creating meaningful pathways for students to succeed after they graduate.
La Salle’s first pilot of this model began last June with a cohort of 30 School District of Philadelphia students and in partnership with Steppingstone Scholars, a Philadelphia-based educational social mobility organization. These students can earn up to 16 credits and, in ensuing cohorts of the program, participants are eligible for up to 30 credits in one of three unique, industry-focused academic tracks.
Students participating in La Salle’s Early Achievement Program can graduate from high school having completed the credit equivalency of their first year of college. Cumulatively, LEAP aims to reduce potential student debt, improve Philadelphia’s college enrollment rate, and create transformational professional and personal outcomes.
“For some, a college education is viewed as too expensive and maybe even unattainable. We intend for our La Salle Early Achievement Program to serve as a gateway into higher education for these students,” said Tim O’Shaughnessy, ’85, La Salle University’s Interim President. “Our vision is taking shape today. LEAP will increase accessibility to college for Philadelphia high school students. Students who take full advantage of this program will be able to complete a full year of college course work while still in high school. Further, our hope is that they can accomplish this at no cost to them or their families.”
Internal and external sources financed all expenses for the program’s pilot. The Philadelphia-based Neubauer Family Foundation provided a challenge match of $125,000 at the start of the fundraising effort. Full participation from La Salle’s Board of Trustees met the Neubauer challenge, spurred additionally by a lead matching gift from Trustee Reginald M. Browne, ’93. The Neubauer Family Foundation maintains a mission of investing “in people and ideas with the great potential for transformative impact.” These funds will support the current cohort through June 2022.
For next summer, the opportunity to enroll in La Salle’s Early Achievement Program will be made available for up to 200 Philadelphia high school students, upon completion of their sophomore year. La Salle is working with non-profit organizations, foundations, corporations, and individual donors to fully finance this next phase of the program.
Navigating roadblocks to success
It’s no secret: U.S. student debt is at an all-time high. More than 45 million Americans collectively owe an approximate $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, according to recent figures—a crippling sum that exceeds all credit and auto debt combined, and rivals the total gross domestic product of Canada. And those numbers are increasing rapidly, after cresting the staggering $1 trillion threshold in 2012. (To boot, some estimate that anywhere from 10% to 15% of all American student loan debt is in default.)
A study published by the Harvard Business Review in 2019 found that Americans carry an average of nearly $30,000 in student loan debt—enough to prevent many from starting their own businesses while stagnating innovation and entrepreneurship. (La Salle’s 2021 graduates averaged $27,000 of debt, slightly less than the national average.) Student loan debt also has been identified as an impediment keeping young people from first-time home ownership.
Professionally speaking, education is often considered an engine for economic growth and output—and Philadelphia has long suffered from a below-average percentage of its adult population attaining a college degree. Recent U.S. Census data revealed only 27.9% of Philadelphians aged 25 and older hold at least a bachelor’s degree. That figure ranks the city ninth among the 10 most-populous U.S. cities, with only San Antonio (26.0%) sitting behind Philadelphia. By comparison, more than half of Washington D.C.’s 25-and-over population (58.5%) is college-educated. Elsewhere on the east coast, Boston (49.7%) and New York (38.1%) also exceed Philadelphia in this category.
“Philadelphia’s pipeline for a college-educated workforce lags other large cities. La Salle has the opportunity to bridge the education gap for Philadelphia’s future workforce, and it begins with the La Salle Early Achievement Program,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Historically, La Salle’s dual-enrollment offerings have provided high-potential high school students—often from the city’s underserved populations—an opportunity to earn college credits at no cost.
“Offering a truly transformational experience”
Beginning this past June, La Salle launched the pilot of its LEAP program in partnership with Steppingstone Scholars. Thirty students enrolled in courses on curriculum tracks that leverage La Salle’s programmatic strengths, with an opportunity to earn up to 16 credits by Summer 2022. At that time, in addition to the Integrated Science, Business, and Technology track, the program will add a Health and Human Services track. As LEAP expands moving forward, students will complete courses through La Salle’s fall, spring, and summer semesters and can earn up to 30 college credits.
“La Salle University is well positioned to offer a program like this,” La Salle assistant provost Teri Ceraso said of the La Salle Early Achievement Program. “Our campus provides an intimate setting, and faculty and staff offer personalized attention and support systems to accompany high-impact teaching and learning outcomes. We are excited about the opportunities that await our University and the students participating in this special dual-enrollment program.”
Several components of the program are distinctive to La Salle: First, its cohort-based approach will place students in courses with other high school students who are also experiencing the courses, in addition to their lives as high school students. Next, the convenience of the program allows students an in-person experience in the summer, while completing courses remotely during the fall and spring semesters. This format allows students to maximize their academic schedules and other commitments during their high school years.
These are key ingredients in improving student success and retention rates for like programs, said Steppingstone Scholars president Sean Vereen. The college graduation rate among School District of Philadelphia graduates is 15 percent overall and 12 percent among Black and Latinx students, Vereen said.
“We believe we can build that to 25 percent,” Vereen added. “La Salle is leading the way with this program, in many ways, by transforming the existing infrastructure and serving the underserved students of Philadelphia. Research and evidence suggest that, with earlier intervention, it’s more likely that students will matriculate and complete college. Steppingstone helps connect students with colleges and universities, helps them build important relationships while providing mentors and access to critical support systems.”
Also unique to La Salle’s program, the University will tap current undergraduate students enrolled in La Salle’s existing Academic Discovery Program (ADP) to serve as mentors for students in the LEAP program. The mentors will support the La Salle Steppingstone Scholars as they navigate their introduction to the college experience.
One of those students, psychology major Danielle Cho-Xayamoungkhoun, ’23, views La Salle as “a supportive community” that will be ideal for aspiring college students.
“The students in this program need to know this is just the beginning for them,” said Cho-Xayamoungkhoun, a South Philadelphia native. “They need to know they are heard and being cared for, and that’s our role as mentors through this process.”
Mentors are often linked to college success. Students with mentors, whether they are instructors, classmates, or professional staff, reported feeling stronger encouragement to pursue their goals and dreams and land a job or internship that put into practice what’s been taught in the classroom, according to a Gallup poll.
La Salle’s Early Achievement Program is in alignment with the University’s mission of meeting students where they are and improving accessibility to higher education, said Jean Landis, director of La Salle Dual-Enrollment Pathways. Today, La Salle serves an undergraduate student population of which more than 40 percent are Pell Grant-eligible, 40 percent identify as students of color, and roughly 30 percent represent the first members of their family to attend college.
“This program is taking a holistic approach to preparing young minds for bright futures, granting an opportunity to earn college credits while reducing student debt, and offering a truly transformational experience at La Salle,” Landis said.
“La Salle has maintained a historic commitment to first-generation students and 40 percent of its student body is comprised of students of color,” said Steppingstone vice president of programs Chris Avery. “From our standpoint, La Salle is uniquely situated to make an immediate difference in Philadelphia—delivering rigorous coursework and creating real pathways for students to earn a transformational college degree and improve their social mobility.”
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