Kyra Davis received six guest tickets for her graduation from Goucher College last month — not nearly enough to accommodate her large support system.

“People asked to smuggle in my car,” the freshly minted political science and education studies graduate said. “It was a huge deal.”

That’s partially because Davis, who will begin her career as a special education teacher in Baltimore this fall, said she once considered college too lofty a goal. In high school at Baltimore City College, she had difficulty improving her SAT and ACT scores. And after hearing horror stories about student loans and college debt, she was loath to take on the financial burden.

Then Davis connected with an adviser from the CollegeBound Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit that works to get city students “to and through” institutions of higher education. The organization helped her apply to schools and source enough financial aid to complete college — which she did in four years, in spite of the coronavirus pandemic. And as a member of CollegeBound’s College Completion Program, she received workshops, peer counseling and other social services that can be crucial for some Baltimore high school graduates to navigate life on campus.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Increasing college completion rates has long been a focal point for education nonprofits, institutions, and educators, who have come to recognize disparities in not just who attends college, but also who walks away with a degree. Those differences tend to play out among race and ethnicity, geography and family median income: For example, data from the National Student Clearinghouse, an educational research and reporting organization, shows that white students and Asian students are far more likely to graduate within six years than Black and Latino students at both public four-year and public two-year institutions.

The path to graduation may be especially difficult for students whose parents didn’t attend college, students who use English as a second language, students from low-income families, and those from regions around the U.S. without services such as college counseling, standardized test prep courses or readily accessible transportation.

As part of The Baltimore Banner’s Better Baltimore series, we looked into CollegeBound’s effort to get more city school students into caps and gowns. Organization leaders, board members and students touted how many scholars were able to graduate, even during a public health crisis that shuttered campuses and halted many essential services, such as student housing.

Got a question about Baltimore government? Ask it here.

The CollegeBound completion program, which graduated its first cohort in 2021, is helping to shepherd an extraordinary number of city students through college. The first class had 75% of its students either graduate or on track to graduate within six years. This year’s class upped the rate to about 77%, said Jennifer Covahey, CollegeBound’s director of college success.

A sign for the CollegeBound Foundation on the exterior wall of Green Street Academy. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The six-year graduation rate — the standard metric for measuring “typical” four-year degree completion rates — for city school students who go to college tends to be about one-third of the rate for Maryland students who went to high schools outside of the city, according to the latest data from Baltimore’s Promise, an organization that tracks outcomes for Baltimore residents from birth through adulthood.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

With this disparity in mind, CollegeBound, one of several education-focused organizations in Baltimore, revamped its completion program in 2017. They combined financial assistance with on-campus counseling from CollegeBound “liaisons” working in college advising, retention or financial aid departments. CollegeBound also added year-round programs — such as group retreats and career coaching — to keep students engaged and enrolled. The organization has secured enough funding to expand its fall class of scholars from 75 in fall 2021 to 150 in fall 2022, and plans to include 200 the following year.

“Before, we didn’t have the programming piece; we knew our scholarship recipients were dropping out,” said Cassie Motz, CollegeBound’s executive director. “Our program has shown, if you give them money and programming, they can do it.”

Cassie Motz, executive director of the CollegeBound Foundation, is interviewed about the organization on June 2 at their headquarters. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

CollegeBound estimates that about 4,000 high school seniors graduate from Baltimore City schools every year, and about 2,000 of them go on to college. Of those 2,000 students, about 1,000 go to four-year schools, and about 800 of those students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a need-based scholarship that can pay for college costs.

The goal, Motz said, is to eventually get all 800 of those city schools students into the completion program and to scale it to include two-year institutions and community colleges down the line.

There are no GPA or essay requirements to participate in the completion program, Motz added. The students just have to qualify for Pell Grants.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

There also aren’t strict GPA requirements to remain in the completion program: CollegeBound uses the same standards as the state and federal minimums.

The number of students who apply to participate in the program far exceeds what the organization can provide, Motz said. CollegeBound has formed a close partnership with the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which has started making lists of every city student who is eligible for both Pell Grants and the completion program, allowing the organization to reach more eligible students.

And as the CollegeBound Foundation expands into more high schools, more students are learning about the program, she said. The completion program is running on a first-come, first-served basis for now.

CollegeBound’s coming expansion is possible, Motz said, due to outside philanthropists and foundations providing the funds for several more students to participate. For example, The Stephen and Renee Bisciotti Foundation, which works on behalf of the owners of the Baltimore Ravens, is funding 80 scholars through the next four years with the Ozzie Newsome Scholarship. It will provide 20 students a year with $10,000 annually for up to five years of college at four Maryland-based, historically black colleges and universities for a total of $4 million.

Students in the CollegeBound completion program typically receive $3,000 in what’s known as “last-dollar” grants, which help cover the fees that federal and private scholarships might not fully cover, or one of a few other awards that may cover the costs of textbooks, for example. The total per-scholar cost comes to about $4,400 a year.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The programming aspect includes a two-day retreat at the start of the academic year; winter workshops for resume crafting, job interviews and maintaining mental health; career assessments; financial aid application assistance; and an end-of-year gathering for all scholars to meet and interact.

Kamal Adams, a rising senior at Morgan State University, said connecting with other CollegeBound scholars has helped him keep up with his coursework.

“In my first computer science class, I was confused and I had a lot of errors in my code, so I reached out to CollegeBound and they reached out to a scholar from another college and he helped me out,” Adams said.

CollegeBound also helps students acclimate to college life before they set foot on school grounds. For students like Ariana Armstrong, the foundation helped fill some critical knowledge gaps. A mandatory virtual workshop prior to starting her first year at Hood College wound up teaching her the ins and outs of higher education.

Ariana Armstrong, 18, is interviewed about her time at Hood College on June 2 at the CollegeBound Foundation. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“It was a whole slideshow about what you need to know about college: not what you want to know, but what you need to know,” said Armstrong, a first-generation college student with interests in art therapy and nursing. “I didn’t know school was thousands of dollars each year, or how important it was to meet with an advisor or communicate with your professors, or how to change your major.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As for Davis, the program gave her an extra nudge toward the finish line. As a child, she attended night classes with her mother, who graduated from college later in life. Davis said she considers herself the family’s first “traditional” college graduate.

“All the workshops really pushed me to complete college; I didn’t even take a semester off,” Davis said. “I doubted my own capability. Knowing I had people in my corner was a big deal.”

Read more:

Hallie Miller covers housing for The Baltimore Banner. She's previously covered city and regional services, business and health at both The Banner and The Baltimore Sun.

More From The Banner