In 2010, several years after she helped launch a game-changing college counseling program at Mastery Charter Schools, Laura Keane was thrilled to know that on graduation day, 98 percent of Mastery students had been accepted to college. It was like a validation of the work she’d done to close the education gap for low-income students in Philadelphia.
But her heart sank soon after when she received the first batch of data from a newly-available national database of college enrollees. Despite their high admittance rate, it turned out that only half of her Mastery graduates were planning to actually attend college. This raised a lot of questions for Keane.
The answer, she found, was rooted in what is often the problem when it comes to education inequities in America: money.
Research shows that higher education improves outcomes for health, civic engagement, economies, and a community’s tax base, and according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, college graduates are more than twice as likely to be employed and earn almost two times the income of a high school graduate. Unfortunately, just 16 percent of students from low-income families finish a college degree, and those who succeed are more likely to be burdened with student loan debt.
The transition to college is difficult academically, socially and financially. The system makes big assumptions: that students and their families are savvy enough to navigate multiple web portals, that parents know English well enough to complete mountains of forms, that there is money for books, deposits and supplies, that there is transportation to orientation, registration and for those staying in a dorm, for move-in day. When these assumptions fall through, the system does not provide recourse, which reinforces the belief that students from an underprivileged background just don’t belong. There is no hand-off between high school and college.
“We are moving the needle, but one-on-one is just a drop in the bucket. We have to start dealing with the actual, structural injustice that’s going on.” —Laura Keane
Keane threw herself into solving this issue, eventually working for and then leading the policy arm of uAspire, a national nonprofit that provides students with financial information and resources to access higher education. Her work at uAspire allowed the innovations she implemented at Mastery to be adopted by schools all over the country, training 3,000 school counselors and college access providers every year on the complex financial aid process, and providing one-on-one support to around 250,000 college-bound students.
For her work to achieve systemic change that results in more degrees and less debt for under-resourced, often first-generation college students, Keane merits inclusion among Generation Change Philly, a partnership with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
Keane is now a private consultant, but the work she has devoted her career to keeps on going. “It’s like the peeling of an onion. Ok, we got that, now this is a new challenge,” she explains. “We are moving the needle, but one-on-one is just a drop in the bucket. We have to start dealing with the actual, structural injustice that’s going on.”
Addressing inequities in her work
Laura Keane earned a B.A. and a Masters in Education, but it was her three years spent teaching at St. Jean Baptiste High School in New York City in 1993 — for $100 a month, plus housing, as part of her post-grad Year of Service — that taught her the most about the inequities in education.
“I went to Notre Dame, which was not a diverse undergraduate experience. But I taught in New York City at an unbelievably diverse school, and I’m sure I learned much more than what I taught,” she says.
Students living with food insecurity, whose parents are working multiple jobs to keep the lights on, in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence and drug abuse, still have to come to school on time, hand in their homework, and pass tests. Keane was inspired by what she saw. “Before you can really focus on algebra homework, you need to have a safe place to sleep and a meal,” she says. “They’re living in unbelievably difficult conditions. It’s actually amazing that they can come in and do any algebra; it’s amazing.”
After St. Jean Baptiste, Keane moved on to grad school, where she worked on civic engagement, violence prevention, and conflict resolution, developing skills in students that would help them thrive. Her desire to teach brought her back to the classroom, this time at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, where she taught history for six years. After starting her own family, she felt a calling to do more work where the need was greatest: education equity in the public sector.
When Mastery Charter Schools was in its first year, Keane was hired to design a curriculum with a rigorous combination of history and English. (Mastery, which began in 2001 as High Tech High, now operates 24 elementary, middle and high schools in Philadelphia and Camden, NJ, with a combined enrollment of 14,000 students.) Though she was there for academics, it became clear that students had personal, social, and emotional needs that Scott Gordon, CEO of Mastery Schools, wanted the program to address. Keane’s role shifted to Director of Social and Emotional learning, still a new idea in 2004.
As Mastery grew and the first class approached graduation, Keane saw another inequity at work. She knew private schools and many suburban, well-resourced schools provide college guidance, advising students on what colleges might be a best fit and supporting the application process with resume writing classes and interview prep.
Mastery’s goal was to give public school students a comparable college guidance program at the same level as what students receive in private school, but on a public school budget. The team developed small, single-gender peer-to-peer support groups and seminars on college-ready skills. By junior year, students were offered an internship, spearheaded by Keane’s colleague Ali Caccavella, to get career experience and opportunities
In Keane’s new role as Director of College Initiatives, she grew a team of 20 colleagues across as many schools. Mastery held college fairs — 100 schools came to their campus — and established a college partnership program that afforded students the opportunity to enroll in dual college courses, apply for select scholarships, and get strategic support. As Keane worked toward closing the opportunity gap, applications from Mastery Charter schools soared.
The other summer melt
The game-changer in Laura Keane’s work was the advent of big data access.
The National Student Clearinghouse was a tracking tool for student loan interest and collection that allowed student loan providers to know when students were and were not enrolled in college. After a grant from the Gates Foundation, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center was launched in 2010, making the data in this system available outside those financial institutions and colleges, specifically for K-12 educators.
Researching that data is what led Keane to the realization that almost half of Mastery grads were dropping out or not attending college at all, something that became known as the other “summer melt.” And in 2011, after then-governor Tom Corbett drastically cut tuition assistance, she started gathering all the data she could about financial aid. At a conference, she connected with a group called Access, which would become uAspire, which was doing its own research into this issue. Together, they developed a training program for school counselors on how to understand the costs of college. Keane incorporated the program into the Mastery School College Initiative with financial aid review, where faculty helped students understand their options.
Keane joined uAspire full-time in 2013, as they were preparing to launch their national training and technical assistance program. Four years later, uAspire launched its Policy and Systems Change division in 2017, with Keane at the helm. In 2018, Keane took her collected knowledge to Congress, where she testified before a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) hearing on Financial Aid and Simplification.
“What does give me the most hope, unequivocally, are the students I’ve worked with. The students that I see are stepping forward, how they frame issues, advocate, get involved, drive the work forward, and demand justice.” —Laura Keane
Her testimony succinctly outlined the research, while grounding the issue in the emotional story of one student who, even with a scholarship and free room and board, could not afford the additional costs of college she wasn’t informed of, and dropped out with debt, no transfer credits, and no degree. It is a hallmark of Keane’s philosophy that students should be the center of institutional, state, and federal policies and practices to make financial aid more equitable. As she puts it, “Every single piece of data, every number, is a person and a story.”
Keane left uAspire as the Covid-19 pandemic was causing many people to reevaluate their priorities. Today, based in Philly, she is an independent consultant and strategist for nonprofits, education institutions and companies nationwide that want to help students obtain their higher education dreams.
Although she is hopeful for the future of education equity, she is also a realist. Many of the problems she tackles are tied to other inequities in other systems, from public schools to criminal justice to labor and childcare, usually drawn along the lines of race and poverty.
“It seems naive to say, oh, I’m hopeful! given longstanding racial and economic inequities in our society,” Keane says. “I don’t know the timeline. It’s so complex. Change is slow, but we are moving in the right direction. What does give me the most hope, unequivocally, are the students I’ve worked with. The students that I see stepping forward, how they frame issues, advocate, get involved, drive the work forward, and demand justice. We must support them, connect them, empower them, amplify them and help them lead on that path forward.”
The Philadelphia Citizen is partnering with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons on the “Generation Change Philly” series to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
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