It’s hard when twelfth graders, on the cusp of graduation, learn their college dreams are out of reach. Could interactions with college recruiters in ninth grade help students consider plans after high school long before their senior year?

The Philadelphia Ed Fund (PEF) asked that question when school partners noted that too many students did not realize the impact of early high school decisions on their postsecondary options. Despite the efforts of the Philadelphia School District and the philanthropic community, high school graduation rates hover at 69%; only 54% of graduates attend college, and only 24% graduate from college.

“You have kids who say, ‘I wish I would’ve paid a little more attention to my attendance; I didn’t know that was so important,’ or, ‘I wish I had taken certain courses,’” said Rick Moses, the director of PEF’s Postsecondary Success Program. “But if you’re thinking about that in the ninth grade, you’re not behind the eight ball when you get to the eleventh grade.”

Students hear about grades, attendance, and behavior from teachers, counselors, and family members. Yet PEF hypothesized that a message from college and postsecondary training recruiters might resonate more deeply and help students understand, at the outset of high school, the importance of the ABCs: Attendance, Behavior, and Course selection and performance.

“As gatekeepers of college and career, recruiters draw a direct line for students between the choices they make in the present and the opportunities available to them in the future,” Moses said.

The Pathways to Adult Success (PAS) Design Challenge provided PEF resources for staff to explore that theory in a pilot project with two partner schools, Paul Robeson High School and Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School (KCAPA). Both had strong postsecondary teams, including school leaders, college and career counselors, and other nonprofit partners, like College Access and GEAR UP.

The PEF team enlisted postsecondary recruiters across the spectrum: from trade, career, and military institutions to two- and four-year colleges. Richard Gordon, the principal at Paul Robeson, helped PEF identify schools where alumni were succeeding—primarily colleges with strong summer bridge programs.

PEF’s first step was developing a toolkit and training session to help college recruiters focus on the ABCs.

Citing the 2011 Everyone Graduates Center “On Track for Success” study, the slideshow shows how important the ABCs are for college admissions and retention as well as workplace success. It also provides tips to help recruiters “connect the dots” for ninth graders—for example:

~ Indicate the average attendance of those who succeed at your institution or workplace.

~ Explain why your organization seeks candidates with positive behavioral qualities, such as the ability to receive feedback and work cooperatively.

~ Help students understand cumulative GPA and the need to focus on good grades early.

In training sessions with recruiters, PEF staff were encouraged to see how enthusiastically the postsecondary reps embraced the idea of integrating the ABCs into their presentations. One recruiter noted, “The ABC toolkit was extremely helpful in preparation for this event. I will be sure to utilize this concept in future interactions with ninth and 10th grade students.

PEF also urged recruiters to portray college or workplace traditions, perks, and experiences, so students could begin to imagine themselves in that space. Yet they realized that to have a real impact on students, the program would have to engage them in envisioning their future and planning actionable steps.

To do this, they created a virtual “student passport” where students would identify personal talents, aspirations, and specific goals in the ABC focus areas, and choose images to represent their vision for the future.

Along with school postsecondary success teams, they planned a college-focused information event with five college reps at Paul Robeson and a trades, career, and military-focused session with recruiters from four institutions at KCAPA.. At each school, the entire ninth grade attended the session—about 75 students at Robeson and 100 at KCAPA.

Students were attending school virtually, so sessions were held right after online classes; breakout rooms with presenters were shortened to twenty minutes each to alleviate screen fatigue. At KCAPA, students enjoyed interacting with current postsecondary trainees during breakouts as well as institution-based recruiters.

PEF’s hunch paid off: students, school leaders, and recruiters unanimously affirmed the value of raising postsecondary awareness early in students’ high school career. KCAPA school leaders had identified the need for a trades and career focus for their first event, but the experience was so positive that they’re already planning a college-oriented session later this spring.

Energized by the success of the toolkit and student passport, PEF is looking to expand the effort to two other Philadelphia high schools they work with.


The Philadelphia Education Fund creates equitable access to opportunities for students by providing resources and expertise that build paths to college and career success.


Our vision is for all young people in Philadelphia to have the skills and opportunity to succeed in college and career.

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