Students graduating from a high-poverty high school often feel like they don’t belong at a 4-year university, and professor Paul Ketchum wants to prove them wrong.

Ketchum started working with Crooked Oak High School in 2013 to increase the number of students attending college. Three years later, the University of Oklahoma adopted the program.

Of the approximately 140 students who took Ketchum’s college prep class at Crooked Oak, 80 ultimately enrolled in the University of Oklahoma.

Compared to wealthier high schools, Ketchum found no difference in the percent of academically inclined students at Crooked Oak, where more than two-thirds are Hispanic and 80% are low-income. The difference was in the expectations.

His students had been encouraged by adults in their lives to dream smaller. Attend vo-tech or community college, instead of a big university. It’s too expensive, they’d warn. Our kids just aren’t those kids, they’d say.

“Parents, teachers, family and friends all treat Title I students as if they don't belong at a place like OU … this is the most difficult change,” Ketchum said.

Of those who didn’t go to OU, many went to Oklahoma State University. College-going even increased for students not in the program, Ketchum said, though he’s mainly tracking the OU students.  

“Kids who normally hadn’t considered college now considered it a good option,” said Ketchum, who once taught middle and high school in Los Angeles and is now an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Though the cost of college has skyrocketed and fewer young people are attending, a four-year degree is still the most reliable route to the middle class, researchers said.

Family income makes a big difference in whether or not young people enroll. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that 89% of students from wealthy families enroll in college, compared to 64% from middle-class families and 51% from low-income families.

Miguel Matancillas Prieto, one of Ketchum’s students, said he didn’t really think about college that much in high school. It’s too expensive, he thought, and joining the military seemed a better path to meet his career goals.

In Ketchum’s class, Matancillas Prieto practiced writing and thinking critically, and learned how to find information in academic journals. He applied to OU in his senior year, 2019, and got accepted. So did at least five of his classmates.

Paul Ketchum, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Oklahoma. (Photo provided)

“We just needed somebody who could help teach us how to prepare for college, give us the tools necessary, and the opportunity as well,” he said.

Matancillas Prieto expects to graduate from OU this spring with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He plans to pursue a master’s degree next — a path he never would have considered if not for Ketchum.

Another of Ketchum’s students, Isiah Caldwell, had always considered college but worried it wasn’t financially feasible. Having someone explain the financial aspect and challenge him with rigorous coursework gave him the confidence to attend.

Caldwell graduated from OU in 2022 with degrees in biology and Japanese. He plans to go to law school. But first, he returned to Crooked Oak High School as a teacher.

In his first-hour class, he helps seniors apply for college. Most want to at least apply and see what happens.

“People around them, specifically family members and people in places they work, oftentimes talk to them and talk them down from college,” Caldwell said.

He tries to be the antidote to that way of thinking, like Ketchum was for him.

The Secret Sauce

The crux of the program was twofold. First, the students needed specific academic skills. Second, they needed to buy into the idea that they belong in college.

For the first piece, Ketchum leaned into the state’s most common college prep strategy: concurrent enrollment, where students take courses that count for both high school and college credit.

More than 13,000 Oklahoma students were enrolled in concurrent courses in the fall of 2022, according to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The state covers the cost of tuition for high school juniors and seniors, up to a certain number of hours, so they not only experience college-level work but can also save money on tuition.

But unlike traditional concurrent enrollment, which has minimum grade point average and standardized test scores to participate, any student who wanted to could take Ketchum’s class. If they didn’t meet the requirements for concurrent enrollment, the class counted as an honors course on their transcript.

To improve their ACT scores, OU students volunteered to help tutor the high schoolers. Crooked Oak’s average composite ACT score was 18.1 in 2021, out of a maximum score of 35. OU doesn’t require a minimum score to apply, but its freshman class averaged 26.1 this year.

That took care of the academic part. But the more difficult part, Ketchum said, was convincing the students they belonged at a university.

One aspect that helped persuade students was college classroom visits. Instead of a tour around the campus, the students were invited to sit in on classes and encouraged to participate.

And he worked to clear financial barriers, helping students apply for Oklahoma’s Promise, a state-funded program to cover tuition for low-income high school students who meet certain criteria.

He connected the students to work study opportunities at the University of Oklahoma, which covered the cost of room and board in exchange for working a certain number of hours.

In 2022, 36% of Crooked Oak graduates went straight to college in the fall, according to data from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education — a higher rate than nearby Oklahoma City Public Schools (24%) and Santa Fe South Charter School (26%).

Thirty-six percent is the state average.

The program disbanded in 2021 due to lack of funding, but Ketchum is planning to bring a similar program to Metro Technology Centers this spring. And Crooked Oak has partnered with Oklahoma City Community College to continue giving its students early college classes.

Crooked Oak High School Principal Laura Knight said the effects have outlasted the program. Before the program, in a typical year, three or four graduates would go on to attend a four-year university. For the Class of 2023, 32 of 77 graduates went directly to college, with at least seven going to OU. 

“Our kids, who don’t typically see themselves as going to college, now see they can do it,” Knight said.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Epic Text Books since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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