I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Good intentions go only so far when the goal is to enroll more low-income students.

People looking for the good news in the update released on Wednesday by the American Talent Initiative can certainly find some in the data showing an overall increase in the number of low-income students enrolled in colleges with high graduation rates since 2015-16. The bad news, however, may be far more telling.

As the report shows, 320 colleges with graduation rates of 70 percent or more increased their enrollment of low- and middle-income students by nearly 21,000 in two years — 40 percent toward the ATI’s goal of 50,000 by 2025. And the 128 colleges that have formally committed to the initiative accounted for a disproportionate share of that increase — nearly 13,000 students.

But hold the applause. That’s because the report goes on to analyze results for 120 ATI members for the 2018-19 year and found two troubling signs. Collectively those institutions’ progress seems to have leveled off; they added a total of just eight lower-income students in that year. Also, at 52 of those institutions, the number of lower-income students actually dropped — in some cases by a lot.

Say what? Dozens of colleges publicly made a point of pledging to enroll more low-income students and then actually ended up doing the opposite? Is there some Bizarro World version of ATI they’re looking to join?

Hoping to better understand, I spoke with Martin Kurzweil, director of the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R, a consultancy that manages the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded ATI. To Kurzweil’s credit (and to ATI’s, for publishing the findings), he didn’t duck the point. “There’s a set of institutions that have really lost momentum, or reversed it,” Kurzweil told me. And with a glass-half-full attitude, he added that he hopes the falloff “increases the sense of urgency” to achieving the goal.

The report doesn’t identify which ATI members now enroll fewer low- and middle-income students than before, although Kurzweil told me you can be sure the 48 institutions highlighted in the text of the report are not among them. And he said there’s no talk now about kicking any members out. Instead, he said, ATI folks are now trying to understand “what’s going on at the institutions that are slipping.”

OK, that’s a healthier response than my catty name-calling above. Some of the successful practices that ATI has identified are described in the report. They include a readiness to look beyond traditional student markets by recruiting more community-college transfer students and military veterans; engaging more rural students by developing special programming; creating an atmosphere that makes students feel like they fit in; and most important, having boards and presidents show a consistent commitment to serving low-income students, “not only in their words but also in their actions and especially in their budgeting.”

Yup, budgets matter. Financial aid speaks louder than words.

Kurzweil noted that the strategies must be multifaceted. A focus on widening the recruitment funnel might be a start, but unless it’s accompanied by equally deliberate attention in a college’s admissions decisions and financial-aid packaging, it won’t accomplish much.

Still, I wondered, what was happening at the colleges where the numbers actually fell?

There’s no single reason, Kurzweil said, while insisting that “being able to find qualified students is not the problem.” Ultimately, he said, the institutions that had made the most progress had the most committed leadership. Elsewhere, he said, despite good intentions, other things “keep getting in the way.”

“There isn’t a natural and powerful constituency behind that priority,” Kurzweil said. So the best tell is a simple one: “Are the leaders of institutions putting this on the top of their priority list, and defending it against different concerns?”

Do more to help students who are parents? You might win a piece of a $1-million prize.

Many older students have a hard enough time getting through college. Those with children have it even tougher. So kudos to the folks at Imaginable Futures, an arm of the Omidyar Group, and the Lumina Foundation and others for creating the new Rise Prize to encourage colleges, companies, and organizations to develop better tools and approaches to help student parents, who make up about 22 percent of all undergraduates.

From my own reporting for “The Adult Student” and that of others, I know there’s plenty to be done to make life easier for students who are parents — and even more so, to encourage more parents to become students. Child care is hard to find and expensive, financial-aid policies often don’t reflect parents’ circumstances, and as Allison Dulin Salisbury, a consultant to the prize organizers, recently wrote, many students who are parents often “take longer to complete credentials, and take on more debt than their nonparent peers.”

To be sure, there’s been some progress, especially as groups like the Institute for Women’s Policy Research continue to press the issue and the idea of “2Gen” programs and policies aimed at serving both parents and their children. But if the chance to win as much as $300,000 in prize money is what encourages even more folks to focus on making such improvements, then I’m all for it. At the very least, let’s hope the contest brings more attention to the issue, and with luck sparks a host of ideas beyond the nine that will eventually be awarded cash prizes. The winners will be announced this spring.

And speaking of big transfer agreements … Wait, were we? Yup.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the implications I saw in the big transfer agreement that had been announced between the Pennsylvania community-college system and Southern New Hampshire University. That felt newsworthy to me because it seemed likely to affect Pennsylvania’s public four-year colleges, many of which are already hurting for students, and because it reflected how ambitious institutions are reshaping the market for students.

Yet, as I was recently reminded by Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire is hardly the only “mega-university” exercising its transfer chops. WGU has 11 statewide agreements with community-college systems, and a total of 465 such agreements with two-year colleges altogether. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them, but California, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington are.

Collectively, those arrangements are creating a substantial student pipeline. Last year nearly 31,000 of WGU’s students came from a community college with which the institution has an articulation agreement, and in the first half of this year, 18,000 more did. Overall enrollment at WGU is now about 120,000. Three states — California, Texas, and Washington — accounted for about half of all those transfers in the 2019 year.

Don’t expect those to be the last. As WGU’s president, Scott Pulsipher, told me, “partnerships between public and private institutions will continue to expand as adults, especially working learners, seek the necessary credentials to advance their opportunities and lives.”

Although Pulsipher didn’t say this, one more thing about the arrangements is also evident. At least a few of those 11 states with which WGU has broad agreements (looking at you Ohio, Missouri, and Colorado) are home to regional public four-year colleges that, like those in Pennsylvania, could probably use the students. But increasingly, such state ties are becoming less important. Students are voting with their feet — or, as is the case at the all-online WGU, with their internet connections.

As for the regional public colleges in Pennsylvania, the head of that system, Dan Greenstein, says don’t count them out yet. In a pointed commentary last week, Greenstein reminded state lawmakers and others that the institutions in his system also have transfer agreements with the community colleges. He said this about the reaction he’s heard to the Southern New Hampshire deal: “It’s more noise than signal: sycophantic fawning over disruption (apparently an end itself); further prognostications from higher-education death watchers (an emerging cottage industry); countless offers of help and support.”

While not naming names, Greenstein also lamented that more than 43,000 Pennsylvania students were choosing a “big-box retail-style education provider rather than a Pennsylvania institution” for online education. And he defended the transfer policies of his colleges by noting that concerns over quality are what keeps those institutions from accepting all credits for transfer. “That sort of thing doesn’t matter at every university, but it does for ours, and it should. Unless you’re a degree mill, quality matters.”

Readers’ responses to strengthening internships and building students’ social capital.

Last week’s newsletter on the anthropologist Matt Hora’s take on internships, by Scott Carlson (h/t for pinch-hitting), and my earlier one on ways to develop students’ social capital resonated with many of you. Several college leaders wrote, looking to tap into the expertise at Braven, the organization that helps low-income students learn about networking and other key skills for developing career contacts, and to share their own efforts to promote social capital among first-generation college students on campus. It’s good to see that college leaders understand the importance of this work.

Scott and I also heard from several institutions that have taken steps to ensure that their internships accomplish what they’re supposed to do. Two stood out.

— Dordt University, in Iowa, described the three-year-old Pro-Tech program, a two-year degree in manufacturing technology or farm operations and management that requires two days a week for paid internships, in which faculty members play a big part in helping students find spots in industries that interest them.

— Indiana Tech wrote to tell us about the Pre-Internship Seminar it requires all its students to take before embarking on internships. Created in 2007 by Cindy Price Verduce, director of the career center, the course is offered to second-semester freshmen and includes not only reviews of students’ résumés and LinkedIn profiles but also a mock interview, a Professional Dress Critique, and an Etiquette Lunch where, Verduce explained, “we discuss interviewing or conducting business over a meal.”

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.