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Robin Hood College Success Challenge: A TEDActive Workshop

What happens when a high school diploma isn’t enough to prepare you for college?

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On Monday afternoon, almost two dozen educators, education specialists, designers, and students gathered outside the Main Theater to begin brainstorming around the Robin Hood Foundation College Success Challenge. In partnership with IDEO, Robin Hood is making its first move onto the national stage by debuting a challenge to TED Active attendees: help design a scaleable, technology-driven way to encourage more community college students to successfully graduate with Associates degrees. Throughout three workshop sessions this week, the group will put their heads together, intent to double the graduation rate of New York students over the next three years.

Here’s the real crux of the issue: Today, a high school diploma is no longer enough for the majority of graduates to successfully enter the work force in the United States; not to mention, their  sufficient preparation for America’s work force for many graduates, and their educations have not adequately prepared them for the challenges of college-level course work. The obstacle of remedial education, in addition to already existing financial and family hardships, means that after being enrolled in courses for six years, almost 75% of students still have yet to graduate. This extra but necessary step can mean multiple semesters of non-credited work, which eat away at precious financial aid resources and severely tap out one’s store of motivation. In New York City alone, the average graduation rate of a student pursuing a two-year degree after three years of course work is only 15%.

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Before starting the actual brainstorming process, workshop participants challenged the workshop leaders from Robin Hood with pointed but astute observations about their targeted population: How old were these students? What role should access to Internet technology play in a possible solution? What did “remedial” college education even mean, and could preventing it before it was needed be part of the challenge?

An archetype of the target Robin Hood College Challenge student quickly emerged: a first year-student, about 21 years old, with some interim work experience between high school and community college. In addition to her full time degree-seeking college course work, she is still working around twenty hours a week, and has an average household income of only $20,000. Over 50% of the U.S. population are first generation college students. Unlike their full-time, four-year college age peers, these students often lack the soft skill resources that campus life can provide — access to academic and career mentorship, as well as positive peer interactions that encourage skills like time management, leadership, self-motivation, and goal-setting.

After hashing out their target group, workshop participants broke into three groups. Armed with Sharpies and Post-It notes, they began five-minute brainstorm sessions on five key areas to the challenge: financial management, social norms, academic preparation, soft skill development, and coaching. The process was rapid fire, boisterous, and enthusiastic: “Life is a process,” observed one participant, “[Students] need to know that it’s okay to not know where they are going yet.” The groups were encouraged to be as graphic as possible — arrows, diagrams, lots of exclamation points — quantity over quality at this stage in the game. No idea was too silly or impossible.

Over the next half hour, these three groups posited several solutions, ideas, and goals for Robin Hood’s challenge: badges a la Foursquare for individual academic achievements, self-service community projects, mediated smart learning using mobile technology — even a linguistic change, from “time management” to “task management,” in order to foster aspirational behavior in struggling remedial students.

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Monday’s workshop concluded with each group voting for their top three ideas across the five challenge areas. These three teams will regroup two more times throughout the week to turn these ideas into a game plan for a possible challenge entry. The Robin Hood Foundation are accepting applications for its College Success Challenge until the end of June. They will select three winning interventions to be tested over three years in New York schools.

Because sometimes, a good idea can come from outside of our categories.

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