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Q&A: Graduate! Philadelphia's Hadass Sheffer

Hadass Sheffer

Hadass Sheffer is one of the founding forces behind (and current president of) The Graduate! Network, an organization that works to help adults complete college. Here in the region, Graduate! Philadelphia has helped over 2,500 older students earn valuable degrees. The upside to engaging and empowering this population is exponential -- they set an example for the next generation and translate newly acquired skills directly into the workforce.

Flying Kite caught up with Sheffer by phone, chatting about the genesis of Graduate! Philadelphia, the challenges faced by older students and the tremendous impact these initiatives can have on the city.

What are the specific challenges Philadelphia faces when it comes to increasing college completion rates?
We started in 2004 when the general approach was to look at incoming students from other places and retaining that new talent. Everyone was concerned about the "brain drain." 

A couple people -- including Sallie Glickman, then CEO of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, and David Thornburgh, then Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southeastern PA -- and I met. We were very concerned about the lack of investment in people who were already here. Sure, we had a lot of college access programs, but we also knew that 50 percent of Philadelphians who managed to get into college (which was already a lower number than we would have liked) graduated. So that meant that 50 percent of people who got into college dropped out, and no one was paying attention to them as a source of talent.

What was the next step?
We spent about six months doing research nationally and discovered that no one was paying attention to this population. This was a population that had absolutely no voice and no perceived value. I think that's because of the "sink or swim" ethos -- if you don't make it in college there's something wrong with you. But these people have invested a lot, they've already overcome a lot of hurdles. 

These are mostly adults. As we looked around at the college access programs, we noted that they were mainly targeted towards young people. We did the math -- helping a young person from scratch get into college, versus helping that person's mother or father or uncle or aunt or grandparent, you get a much higher multiplier effect if you help adults. It would then help the young people in the family.

Plus, most adults are already integrated into the workforce. They bring their newfound skills directly into their places of work. There isn't this lead time -- six or eight years -- that there is with a high school graduate. Literally, adults sit in a class, they learn something new, and they think, "Oh, this is how it applies to what I'm doing." And the next day it shows up in their work. 

Adults also tend to be very place-based. An adult who lives in Philadelphia is likely to stay in Philadelphia and look for work in Philadelphia. 

How do you get these adult students into the right programs?
There's a [college] marketplace that ranges from just being unorganized and chaotic to being really predatory. We needed to organize that marketplace and give people some guidance. [The schools] are all putting out a lot of advertising, yet the rate of adults going back to college and finishing hasn't changed over time. That means that there are a lot of people who are still not responding to this marketing.

We pulled together maybe 50 people to help us design [the program]. Colleges, employers, experts from across the country and individuals put together a blueprint for Graduate! Philadelphia that says, first of all, we need to increase awareness that we have this latent talent pool. We need to invest to activate it. We need to give voice to these people. We need to remove the stigma of being a college drop-out. And then we need to impact some of the policies that hinder people from going back or increase the risk for dropping out. 

What are the biggest barriers that prevent people from going back to school?
Financial, definitely. Especially with this ongoing recession and the very, very high cost of tuition. And there's the fact that some people have let their loans slide and are now hovering on the brink or are in default. That can be scary for people. There is, I think, a paralysis when you look at all of the choices. It can be very daunting to figure out how long it's going to take and how much it's really going to cost. And there's fear of going back into the classroom and being the oldest person there.  

One of the first people who walked into [Graduate!] was a woman who came with 190 credits. She had more than enough to finish her bachelor's [degree], and she just had three credits left in math. She was afraid of math -- that's another big fear.

I know that fear.
Right? It would make me queasy if I had to take math now. And she was afraid of taking online classes. We showed her, by doing an online demo, that she could take an online math class and be fine. She finished it in five weeks. She had been sitting on that unfinished bachelor's degree for 20 years. 

We've had people who completed an associate's degree, then a bachelor's degree and are now taking master's-level courses. We have people who have finished their masters with us and are now in PhD programs. Once you open the door and you teach people how to go back and be successful, the sky is really the limit.

What are the things that the city can do policy-wise to make it easier for people to finish school?
I think one of the big things is money. A lot of employers used to offer tuition assistance and then cut back during the recession. 

UPS, Independence Blue Cross, Verizon and Starbucks are prime examples of companies that have used tuition benefits to increase loyalty and employee retention while building up talent from the inside. They are not afraid of investing in their employees, even to the point of allowing them to attain college degrees.

The city itself has implemented the "Returning to Learning Partnership," which we helped them facilitate. It's a 25 percent tuition discount for any city employee (and their dependents) at one of the participating higher eds.

How did you end up in Philadelphia?
I came to Philadelphia to go to graduate school.

You are talent that the city retained! 
I love Philadelphia. When I first came here, I was not going to be one of those people. This was back in 1990 and I thought, "What a dreary town." But the city was so revitalized and so changed during the time I was in graduate school. I gained a family here as well. For all the right reasons, I'm still here 23 years later. 

I think we are so far ahead of everyone else because we have this talent development infrastructure that no other region has -- we have the college access programs, we have Graduate! Philadelphia, Campus Philly, PhillyGoes2College out of the Mayor's Office of Education, the Philadelphia Youth Network. I'm really hoping that we can showcase it at the CEOs for Cities meeting. 

Flying Kite has partnered with CEOs For Cities to highlight efforts to improve Philadelphia's Talent Dividend.

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.


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