?College Affordability – Taking the Long View to Ensure Success To, Through and From College

Educators working with students from low-income communities should rightly hope for a national solution to the college affordability crisis. But in the meantime, we need to do something now to help students overcome the affordability gap and graduate in greater numbers. At YES Prep, we believe that means incorporating college affordability as a continuous and comprehensive part of our overall college prep curriculum. 

Last month, we released College Initiatives Redefined, a report on our college counseling and alumni support programs. One area the report covers in some detail is a shift in our thinking around the overlap between college success and college affordability. Here are three of our key insights:

1. Affordability is not an afterthought.
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When YES Prep graduated its first seniors in 2001, we, along with our students, naively thought that college success depended largely on ensuring they got accepted to the schools they chose. Once it came time to pay for school, together, we’d help them figure out a payment plan. Today, we’ve adapted our college search process to ensure college affordability is a critical part of the conversation at the earliest stages and to steer students in the right direction from the very beginning. We do this in two primary ways:

  1. uAspire, a national organization committed to helping students find a path to college affordability, helps us compile and analyze our students’ historical financial aid awards and student application data in order to better predict how much aid a particular student will likely be offered from a particular school. Armed with this information, we can give each student and their family better information about affordability, and present them with viable college options that would be a good financial fit. We see this as a starting point for students’ college research. After acceptance at schools, families also work through uAspire’s electronic ‘work sheets,’ to help determine the exact costs of each school option, so that financial surprises during college are minimal.
  2. Financial aid discussions have always been a part of our college counseling, but we now include dedicated, trained staff and intentional programming as part of a more formalized coaching process around affordability. In 2014, over 90 percent of our graduating seniors and their families had a formal meeting with their college counselor before May 1 to review their college decisions and financial aid awards, and to plan out exactly how they were going to pay for their college of choice. (For students facing more complex financial challenges, such as undocumented students or students leaning towards less affordable college options, these meetings started earlier in the year.)

2. Scholarship disbursements should be made strategically.

In recent years, we’ve done in-depth analysis of college persistence rates among recipients of scholarships from our alumni fund. Such analysis helps us determine how best to distribute the limited funds we have available. For example, our data tells us that a student with $4,000 in unmet need and a clear plan for covering that need is highly likely to persist through and graduate from college. By disbursing small scholarship awards, typically in the amount of $500-$2,000, we can effectively help cover gaps for a number of such students. If a student has $14,000 in unmet need and no adequate plan, the most strategic action might be counseling them to find a more affordable college option.

3. Academics affect affordability.

More and more students across the country, especially from low-income communities, compete for scholarships and other merit-based opportunities than did in 2001, when our first seniors graduated. That means students’ credentials need to be increasingly strong in order to be competitive. Focusing on building on our already strong academic program allows our students to consistently compete for highly sought-after scholarships. This year, for example, YES Prep students claimed eight of 40 Houston-area Posse Foundation scholarships and will receive funds to cover all of their college costs. YES Prep students also received four of the eight available Steve Francis Foundation scholarships for disadvantaged Houston students.

College success starts with an informed, responsible selection process

In the past, we encouraged our students to apply to whatever colleges they were interested in and not be deterred by the price tag. Not anymore. While we want to support our students in their pursuit of their choice colleges, we’ve realized that truly supporting them means doing everything possible to steer each student towards an informed and responsible choice. The goal? Minimizing the risk that they’ll drop out before graduation, while maximizing the opportunity to earn a college degree and walk away with as little debt as possible.

This blog first appeared on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog.

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