The Road to College Graduation – Part 1

A four-part series on what it takes to get our students to & through college

Topic 1: Transition to College

In an article earlier this summer, Why Poor Students’ College Plans Melt Over the Summer, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam talked about ‘the summer melt.’  Students get into college and intend to go, but for low-income students, about 20% of them don’t show up in the fall.  Due to a variety of factors, ‘the last mile,’ as Vedantam calls it, is difficult to negotiate, and after 12 years of schooling and preparation, 1 in 5 low-income, college-bound students aren’t able to take that final, literal step onto their college campus.

This phenomenon has been central in the minds of our college counselors at YES Prep, especially as we grow.  We now have over 1,200 alumni, almost 300 of whom are in the class of 2013 alone.  We estimate that about 98% of the Class of 2013 matriculated this fall and in 4 years, when we start graduating 1,000 or more seniors each year, it will be a serious challenge to ensure that matriculation number stays high.  In the meantime, we’re also working relentlessly to figure out what barriers kept that 2% from even matriculating. 

Strictly speaking, YES Prep serves grades 6-12.  Our mission of creating more low-income college graduates, though, demands that in practice, we serve grades 6-16.  Right now in Houston, about 8% of low-income students earn a college degree and 40% of YES Prep graduates have earned their degree on time.  While having a college graduation rate 5 times that of their peers means a lot of success for our students, 40% is still way too low and reveals just how many obstacles low-income students need to overcome in order to make college graduation a reality.

Over the next few months, we’ll dig into our challenges, our students’ situations, and our programs to discuss what we’re doing at YES that’s working, and also where we’re falling short and looking for more and better strategies and programs.  First, though, as our class of 2013 starts on their college journey, let’s start with them and look at what got them from college acceptance to college matriculation – our Transition to College program.

Transition to College Program

  • Transition curriculum – YES Prep students have a college counseling component all four years of high school.  During their senior year, they complete all their college applications through this class and then in the Spring they focus on the transition to college.  In this class they begin discussing time management strategies, homesickness, how to handle relationship stresses at home and at school, etc.  The topics for this curriculum are continually revised based on feedback from our alumni currently in college about what they’re currently struggling with and where they’re finding success.  Another huge component of the transition curriculum has to do with financing college.  They learn how to negotiate the financial aid system and they also spend a lot of time finding and applying for scholarships they qualify for.


  • Alumni Scholarship Fund – As we’ve all seen in the news, college costs are continually rising.  In an effort to meet the needs of our students, we have developed the Alumni Scholarship Fund so that we can facilitate scholarships for students internally, in addition to tapping into external scholarships and financial aid.  This year alone, our fund’s generous donors –Spindletop Charities Inc., John & Laura Arnold, the Assistance League of Houston, the Executive Association of Houston, and many others – awarded about $250,000 to our alumni!  A one-time scholarship award of $2,000 through our fund, for example, can mean the difference between being able to travel to school and buy all the books & supplies the first semester and not even matriculating, so this program is essential in a successful transition to college.


  • Exit interviews & data collection – There are at least 3 full-time college counselors at full-grown YES Prep campuses and each of them has a cohort of seniors they work with.  Throughout the senior year, the college counselors gather data on their seniors that could affect their college matriculation.  All of this data is filtered through 3 categories – academic, financial, and situational.  At the end of the year, each senior has an exit interview with their college counselor to talk specifically about how prepared they are to start college in those 3 areas.  The goal of this data collection is to identify what barriers there might be for each student.  Ideally, during the exit interview or before, an immediate action is taken to try to overcome those barriers.  For example, if there’s a financial barrier, the college counselor would focus on finding scholarships and making sure the financial aid paperwork was completed properly.  Or if a student’s family doesn’t want them to go out-of-state for college, they would meet with the family and student to help them decide on a college that will meet the needs and desires of the student and their family.


  • Outreach strategy – Based on the exit interviews, the Directors of Alumni Programs determine who may still be at risk of not matriculating.  During those crucial summer months when the ‘summer melt’ can occur, YES Prep college counselors and alumni directors do targeted outreach to help support our most at-risk graduates in making a successful transition to college.  For some students it may be that they’re second-guessing the decision to move away from friends and family.  Or maybe they are moving across the country and although they have a scholarship for tuition, they don’t have the money to actually get to the school.  Ideally, if the lines of communication are open and obstacles are identified early enough, we believe we can help our students navigate those challenges successfully.  To that end, we have created a full-time position this year – the Director of Alumni Transitions – who will focus heavily on supporting our alumni during the key transitional points – to, through and from college – one of the first positions of its kind to be established anywhere.

As this first transition phase comes to a close for the class of 2013, we’re proud and excited and nervous and hopeful.  Will they be successful?  How many will return for a second year or even a second semester?  Part of that answer lies in our high school college counseling program.  Did students pick the right school?  Can they afford it?  Are they academically set up for success?  Another part of that answer comes from our alumni programs.  Do they have a support system at their school?  Are they able to advocate for themselves when they encounter a new obstacle?  Do they know what resources YES Prep can offer them and are they comfortable reaching out when there’s a problem?  In our next part in the series we’ll get an update on how the class of 2013 is doing and a deeper look into some of the alumni programs set up to support them.

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