Regional project aims to increase college enrollment

| Contributing Reporter

The St. Louis Regional College Access Pipeline Project is coordinating the efforts of local businesses, foundations and institutions of higher education to increase college enrollment in St. Louis.

The project, which began in 2008, specifically targets low-income students. St. Louis currently ranks 24th out of the 35 largest metropolitan regions in the country in the proportion of its population that has a baccalaureate degree.

“The work that we did does target low-income students both because we think it’s the best and right thing to do and also because if you look at the demographics for this region, that is where the potential is for greatest growth,” said Faith Sandler, co-chair of the project’s steering committee and executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

To gather research for the project, representatives conducted informational interviews with every university in the St. Louis metropolitan area, as well as with colleges and universities that serve a large proportion of students from the St. Louis metropolitan area, such as the University of Missouri-Columbia and Missouri State University. Washington University provided support during the initial stages of the project.

Leah Merrifield, special assistant to the chancellor for diversity initiatives, supported the project during its early stages by serving as a representative from both the University and from College Bound, a college access and completion program in St. Louis.

“It really was a matter of having some key players in the St. Louis region who have been working on these issues and really wanting to see the state do something more,” Merrifield said.

Washington University remains involved with the project today.

“[The University] continues to be a place people choose to come to get their degrees, and we are a net importer of talent,” said Rob Wild, assistant to the chancellor. “We recruit a certain number of people from the region, and many, many more stay…here and join the workforce.”

Increasing the number of people in St. Louis with college degrees has implications for the local economy because it will make St. Louis a more desirable place for businesses that want to hire employees, Wild added.

The low proportion of students with college degrees is not exclusively an urban issue. North St. Louis County also has a low proportion of students with college degrees, and the more rural Jefferson and Franklin counties often see students graduating high school and not pursuing a college education.

“If we’re going to compete to attract business to this region, if we’re going to compete to keep youth within the region…then the way we’re going to do that is to reach the entire population,” Sandler said.

The project has already achieved results by informing the public, from the media and legislators to local people in St. Louis. Representatives from the project held a public forum on Oct. 7, 2009, in which Greg Darnieder, special assistant on college access in the U.S. Department of Education, spoke on the issue.

“We’ve seen first of all that the community is really hungry for the information,” Sandler said.

The project will continue to work to achieve its goal: reaching the threshold of 50 percent of St. Louis’s adult population having a baccalaureate degree or a post-secondary degree by 2020.

“In order to do that, we set forth six strategies that we think really all have to be in place, ranging from a better statewide data collection effort to creating in high schools a college-going culture where there’s an expectation that students can, in fact, pursue something beyond their high school diploma,” Sandler said.

Wild stressed the importance of the project for the region’s future.

“We are going to be a stronger region when more of our residents have access to high-quality higher education opportunities,” Wild said. “It’s just really important for our future economic stability that we continue to find ways to get more of our population educated with a college degree.”

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