After successfully leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a historic comeback to clinch the 2016 NBA championship, LeBron James has sealed his legacy as one who overcomes the odds in more ways than one.
But after all the confetti has fallen in the long-awaited victory parade in Cleveland, a deeper question is: Can King James pull off a similar feat when it comes to helping disadvantaged kids get through college?
The question is fair game.
When the LeBron James Family Foundation announced last year that it would be supporting as many as 2,300 kids from his hometown of Akron, Ohio with four-year scholarships to the University of Akron, the philanthropic endeavor was met with a chorus of rightly deserved plaudits.
But the reality is between now and the year 2021 — when the first group of kids in the foundation’s Akron I PROMISE program should graduate from high school — educators and administrators at the foundation must develop a game plan that ensures students will not only qualify for the scholarships but earn their degrees.
Eligibility requirements such as a minimal GPA or college entrance exam score have yet to be determined. Even the source of funding for the scholarships is not entirely clear.
Be that as it may, those involved with the program are optimistic about it nevertheless.
“This is a brand new exciting idea that we’re working on,” said Susan G. Clark, professor and interim dean at The LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education at the University of Akron. (The college was recently renamed as part of its partnership with the foundation.)
An official at the foundation said that through a long-time partnership with the foundation and the university, the university will cover the cost of each eligible scholarship recipient’s tuition and general service fees. In-state tuition and fees at the university runs about $10,000 per year.
Michele Campbell, executive director of the foundation, said with the first class of scholarship-eligible students just embarking on 8th grade, there is time for the University and the foundation to “facilitate fundraising over the next five years to help cover the costs.”
“It is a true partnership with both sides working together to provide this life-changing opportunity for these students, all because LeBron James, just a fellow kid from Akron, believes in them,” Campbell said.
Higher education experts caution that despite the hype about students being offered a full-ride to college, graduation will not necessarily be a slam dunk.
“Money alone is not enough,” said Laura W. Perna, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and college completion expert who is currently tracking more than 100 private and public “promise” scholarship programs — including the LeBron James scholarship program — in collaboration with an initiative called the College Promise Campaign.
The idea that program participants need more than just money for college is particularly true since the kids selected to be in the program have been identified as academically struggling, Perna and other experts say.
Plus, they note that a condition of the scholarships is for students to attend University of Akron — an institution where the six-year graduation rate is a mere 40.6 percent overall and 13.2 percent for underrepresented minority students, whereas the national graduation rate for public institutions is 58 percent, federal data show.
The low graduation rates place the University of Akron toward the bottom of comparable peer institutions that educate similar student populations, according to collegeresults.org, a database maintained by The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that focuses on fostering equitable outcomes in education. Nearly half of all students at the University of Akron are Pell eligible, and 15.2 percent are underrepresented minorities.
The low completion rates come at a time when the University of Akron is trying to become more selective.
“While we acknowledge the graduation rates at The University of Akron must improve, it is also important to note that UA is currently transitioning from a liberal admissions institution (ACT scores middle 50 percent is between 17-22) to a traditional one (ACT scores middle 50 percent is between 18-24),” states a 2014 document called “The University of Akron Completion Plan.”
Perna — who plans to develop a three-year research agenda that identifies and examines best practices within the scholarship programs she is tracking — credits the LeBron James Family Foundation with starting early in intervening in the lives of the potential scholarship recipients to get them ready for college.
But beyond that, Perna asks: “Are there things that help change the school culture that might enhance the benefit of the program?”
Indeed, while students from Akron Public Schools enrolled at public university or university regional campus at a rate of 76 percent — slightly above the Ohio statewide average of 74 percent — the percentage of Akron students who need remediation once in college is also higher than the state average, according to a report titled “2014 Status of Ohio Graduates Remediation Report by District.”
Specifically, whereas 32 percent of entering Ohio college students took developmental math or English, for students from Akron, the figure stood substantially higher at 52 percent, according to the report.
Officials at the LeBron James Family Foundation and the University of Akron say such realities are guiding their work as they design the I PROMISE and develop its eligibility criteria and support systems.
They are keenly aware of the challenges associated with educating first-generation college students and how the odds are stacked against them.
“That 100 percent has guided the conversation,” said Campbell, the executive director at the all volunteer-run LeBron James Family Foundation. “Especially African American males, the graduation rate is a lot lower, and that’s guiding all of the work that we’re doing.”
In order to understand the task at hand for the Akron I PROMISE program, it’s important to understand the pathway through which students enter the program.
First, students must be enrolled in the Akron Public Schools — the same school system that Campbell says nurtured LeBron as a young person with a rocky childhood.
“LeBron went to Akron Public Schools through 8th grade, so it’s important that that’s the children we are working with,” Campbell said. “It’s authentic to who he is and who he wanted to help.”
Second, before they can enter the Akron I PROMISE program, students are first selected by APS for the foundation’s Wheels for Education program. About 200 third graders are selected for the program each year. There are currently five cohorts of students in the program. The oldest is about to enter the eighth grade. If all goes as planned, they will be part of the high school Class of 2021.
“One of the main factors that a lot of them have in common is that these children are entering the third grade and not reading at a third grade level,” Campbell said. “And that, as you know, is one of the predictors for dropout rate.
“You can’t wait until freshman year to start, in my opinion,” Campbell continued. “That’s why the interventions that we have — working with Akron Public Schools and the University of Akron — when they’re in third grade are going to help them when they get to college.”
The interventions range from extra after-school support to outings to exposure to various careers. King James communicates with the kids through robocalls and messages, a program official said.
But when program participants enter the 7th grade, the tactics change.
“Once in middle school, we learned some of the interventions aren’t quite as cool, so they enter the Akron I PROMISE Network,” said Stephanie Rosa, of LRMR Marketing & Branding, an Akron-based firm that works with star athletes and for which LeBron James is part owner.
Some researchers have questioned whether steering students to the University of Akron with scholarships is a wise thing to do given the school’s low graduation rates, which researchers say can have an adverse effect on incoming students.
“I know that there’s a lot of regional pride. I know that’s something LeBron James is really known for and I think it’s terrific that he really wants to foster growth and development of the community where he came from,” said Lindsay Page, assistant professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.
However, Page said one thing she might challenge is restricting the scholarship to be used only at the University of Akron.
“We should worry about whether this financial boon to students might be directing them to attend an institution that is not as good an institution as they would have otherwise gone to,” Page said.
Campbell countered that shutting off better postsecondary options is not an issue because most of the students selected for the Akron I PROMISE program were not college bound in the first place.
“I would say most of our kids, college was never in the conversation for them,” Campbell said. “It was always something that someone else would be doing and not them.”
Since the LeBron James scholarships were announced last year, she said, the scholarships have already begun to make a difference — although formal evaluations have yet to be conducted.
“You see kids that were not doing well in school, they were getting straight A’s and talking about what they want to be when the grow up,” Campbell said. “It’s really lifted a lot of weight off our families.”
Campbell asks critics of the University of Akron: “Do you see any other universities that have stepped up and offered scholarships to kids in Akron, Ohio?”
“However, say some of our kids get to a scholarship to the University of Miami or Stanford or the University of South Dakota,” Campbell said. “We want them to go wherever is best for them. So if that’s where they want to go, the foundation will support that.”
Nevertheless, eligibility requirements for the LeBron James scholarship program itself are still being developed, Campbell conceded.
Page, of Pittsburgh, said it’s important to put a lot of thought into the eligibility criteria as not to screen out kids who could still do OK in college.
“There’s a lot of research that would say that there are students who fall below eligibility criteria that has been used for certain merit programs, for example, who can benefit from going to a four-year institution and can succeed at a four-year institution,” Page said.
Clark, the interim education dean at the University of Akron, said community service will be a major component of the eligibility requirements.
“The importance of community service as part of the scholarship criteria really comes from LeBron James himself, because he has shared with the kids that nothing is given — everything is earned,” Clark said. “So part of the ‘earned’ is that students would be giving back to the community.”
Along those lines, Clark said the LeBron James scholars are being paired with University of Akron students who are involved in student service organizations so that they can perform service and become familiar with the environment at the University of Akron all at once.
Clark also said the university has made a “very strong commitment to student advising and student support.”
“That is going to be a very key element of ensuring that our students feel grounded in the university should they choose the University of Akron,” Clark said.
Clark revealed that the university has also created a mentoring course for students to take in order to be more effective mentors in the field in Akron Public Schools.
Clark said the University of Akron’s low graduation rates are partially attributable to students who have to stop out in order work or “deal with personal things or family matters.”
“Yes, it may take longer because we have a number of students that need to work, so that slows down their pace but it also allows them to pay their bills and not exceed or take out too much student loans,” Clark said.
Clark said working to make sure the LeBron James scholars meet university admission requirements are still being worked out. It’s unclear, she said, as to whether will have to maintain a certain GPA in high school or achieve a certain score on their college entrance exams.
Clark rejected the notion that the LeBron James scholarships are “steering” students to the University of Akron at the expense of better institutions.
“We’re not steering anyone anywhere,” Clark said. “We’re just saying that we welcome and are committed to the students that are in our backyard that are going to Akron Public Schools, that they don’t have to worry about paying tuition and so forth.”
Clark said the College of Education will track the Akron I PROMISE participants over the years to monitor if they are sticking with the program. She said it’s too early to say if there’s been any attrition from the program.
While it’s too early to say if the LeBron James scholarship program will be a success, Campbell said she is confident that in six or seven years, the scholarship program will prove a success.
“I think in 2022, 2023, we’re going to have a good story to tell,” Campbell said.