When Alexandra Bernadotte started college, she thought she was ready for her freshman year. Born in Haiti and raised in Mattapan—one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods—Bernadotte worked hard to earn admission to Dartmouth. Though neither of her parents went to college, they taught Bernadotte that higher education was integral to her future success. “[My parents] talked to me about education being our ticket to a better life,” she told Fusion, adding, “not just for myself, but for my family and my community.”
Once she started, though, she began to doubt herself. "I struggled academically, socially, and financially. Although I had excelled in challenging classes in high school, I wasn't prepared for the academic setbacks in college and I didn't know how to deal with them," she said, adding that she didn't seek help because she feared it would be seen as a sign of weakness. “I started to question whether I was indeed college material.” Bernadotte made it through college in large part, she says, because of support from her family, her peers, and her mentors. “Had it not been for these support structures,” she said, “I probably would have ended up as a statistic.”
Alexandra Bernadotte. Photo by Kevin Meynell.
Bernadotte’s experiences were part of her inspiration for founding Beyond12, a nonprofit that aims to give students like her access to the types of support that ensure success. Using data, Beyond12 works to help low-income, first-generation, and otherwise at-risk college students overcome the roadblocks that make it tough for them to graduate—and help pre-college programs find out exactly what those roadblocks are. The goal is massive, systemic change.
To make that happen, the organization uses a three-pronged approach: “We track, we connect, and we coach,” says Bernadotte, who will be speaking at the upcoming Ashoka Future Forum about how to talk about race. Tracking happens in the form of a tool for pre-college organizations, like high schools or after-school college-prep programs, that helps these organizations keep tabs on how their alumni are doing in college. That tool provides detailed information on college-enrolled students. “It’s everything from, did they show up? Did they have to take remedial classes, and if so, in what subject? Are they engaged? What are their grades?” Bernadotte explains. That level of detail lets the pre-college programs know how to adjust to better serve their students.
Currently, Beyond12 uses a website, built on the Facebook platform, to connect to and help students cope with common problems. Eventually, that site will be swapped out for a mobile app. The program sends students alerts reminding them to go to office hours, fill out FAFSA forms, and make sure they’re putting enough time into their homework. This, says Bernadotte, is a “campus-specific…platform that allows us to break down very complicated tasks students have to do… [with a] comprehensive, interactive to-do list” that helps students overcome challenges. It’s also the way Beyond12 collects the tracking data given to pre-college programs.
Finally, the organization links at-risk students to coaches—recent college graduates who were also first-generation college-goers or from at-risk communities. The coaches, says Bernadotte, act like “knowledgable older siblings, [who can help students] avoid pitfalls and address them when they’re happening.”
Beyond12's first cohort of students entered college in 2011, and preliminary figures are promising. Of the first group of 604 students, 82 percent returned for their third year of college. Considering that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students earn their degrees within six years, the figure is something to cheer.
Students in the highest income quartile are about eight times more likely to graduate college by the age of 24 than students in the lowest, according to a report from the Pell Institute and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania. Bernadotte hopes that by 2020 Beyond12 will monitor 200,000 students. That might seem like an ambitious goal, but that gap is a problem for everyone. “I think about the lost potential… What are the implications? Not just for the students and their families, but for our community, for our country and for our society.”
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.