With an increasingly competitive landscape for high school students, Cohen College Prep has an offer that school leaders hope will convince students to give them another look: Any freshmen who enrolls next year will receive a $500 scholarship upon graduation.
The $500 scholarships are part of a pilot program the New Orleans College Prep charter network hopes to pioneer next year, said College Prep founder Ben Kleban at the organization’s governing board meeting on Tuesday evening. With an estimated 50 students who will stay from ninth grade to graduation, he expects the project to cost $25,000.
Ninth-grade recruitment has traditionally been a weak spot for the school. In the 2015-16 school year, the charter network wrote a budget based on a hope of an incoming class of 175 students, but only managed to recruit 121 by the start of school — contributing to a temporary budget deficit that the network had to work for most of the school year to overcome.
This year, the school wrote a much more conservative budget for Cohen anticipating 120 freshmen, but have still only been assigned 81 at this point in the OneApp process — roughly the same amount as this time last year, said co-CEO Natalie Kaharick.
“This year, we’re being very conservative with our budget targets to make sure we can hit our goals,” Kaharick said.
Cohen’s most significant challenge in recruiting is the reputation it had as one of Louisiana’s lowest-performing high schools prior to College Prep arriving, Kleban said. The school earned a ‘B’ rating from the state last year — a dramatic turnaround — though Kleban said that rating may dip to a high ‘C’ this year based on a previous class’s graduation rates. Meanwhile, two new high schools with ninth grade classes are opening up this fall — further increasing competition for new students, Kleban said.
With the enrollment at about the same point as last year, 2016-17 will be a good year to test the success of the scholarship experiment, Kleban said. The program has other benefits as well, beyond recruitment, he said. First, it matches the network’s goal of encouraging students to go to college — a guaranteed $500 scholarship (sent to whichever college they enroll in) just for graduating may tip the scales for some students.
Also, Kleban said, the network believes that by keeping students at Cohen for the entire four years of their high school education — rather than jumping schools, starting Cohen late or leaving to go elsewhere — gives them the best chance of academic success.
“Stability of our students and retaining them through graduation gives them a better chance of college access,” Kleban said.
Finally, Kleban said, the school administration believes that the $25,000 in scholarships may be more effective in drawing students than simply putting up another billboard.
Members of the College Prep board primarily worried that the program could be abused, such as if a student enrolls at Cohen but then leaves before graduating, and wants to take that scholarship money anyway. Kleban and other administrators reassured them, however, that families will be well informed of the program’s rules ahead of time, and students will sign a contract acknowledging that they understand.
Board members also pondered whether the program could be expanded, perhaps to encourage retention by adding more money to the scholarship each year, though Kleban said the cost could quickly exceed College Prep’s ability to pay.
Others asked if it could encourage college savings by letting families use it as a seed fund for college tuition, though officials said they worry that the entanglement of the money could create problems if a family does choose to leave.
The money for the project will be privately raised, rather than paid for by state funds, Kleban said, perhaps from a fundraiser like the alumni association’s annual Mardi Gras parking event.
“We’ve been advised that it’s best not to use MFP funds for this,” Kleban said.
The board did not vote on the program, with board chair Peter Harding saying that the allocation of the money seemed to be an administrative decision that did not require a board vote. Kleban asked if any board members were uncomfortable with proceeding with the program, and while some questioned whether it would have the impact on recruiting that officials hope, it mostly received praise from the board.
“I think it’s brilliant,” said board member Barbara MacPhee.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.