College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Making College Access a Local Reality

By George Weiss & Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey — September 16, 2014 6 min read
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How can a medium-size American city with its fair share of economic struggles drive a 9-percentage-point increase in the number of public high school graduates going on to enroll in college—in just one year?

The Buffalo school district in upstate New York announced earlier this year that it had experienced that very uptick in college matriculation in the fall of 2013, when compared with a year earlier. Specifically, 66 percent of the 2013 Buffalo high school graduating class enrolled in a two- or four-year college, compared with 57 percent in 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

How did this happen? And what lessons can be learned that might be relevant to other cities and school districts seeking, right now, to send more of their students off to college?

A program in Buffalo is working across the community to encourage college-going and college-completion for all students.

While we want to be careful not to read too much into a single data point in a single year, the gains coincided with the launch in 2012 of Say Yes Buffalo, an affiliate of Say Yes to Education.

Say Yes, the shorthand by which the nonprofit organization we lead is more commonly known, has worked with the leadership of the city of Buffalo, Erie County, and the Buffalo school district to galvanize and organize an array of local partners around the goal of increasing postsecondary-completion rates for the city’s young people.

But we believe their efforts, and these early results, can ripple far beyond the eastern shore of Lake Erie, where Buffalo sits. Say Yes, which is based in New York City, has developed fundamental strategies for taking to scale, nationally, efforts such as those underway in Buffalo, so that every public school student who wishes to attend a two- or four-year college, or a postsecondary vocational program, might have the support and wherewithal to achieve that dream.

To realize that goal nationally, however, those doing work at various outposts in this space—school districts, government leaders and policymakers, researchers, businesses and community-based organizations—must come together to share and synthesize the best practices for getting urban students, in particular, to and through college, and to commission the large-scale, independent research that can further guide the scaling-up of that work.

For its part, Say Yes helps bring together every stakeholder in a community—the mayor, the city council, county government, higher education leaders, the school system, local businesses, union representatives, local philanthropies, parents, faith-based and community-based organizations—and then assists that coalition as it redirects existing public funds and raises additional money from the private sector.

Our mission has evolved over its 27-year history from providing small cohorts of children with support services and college scholarships to enabling whole cities to meet the goal of making a postsecondary education attainable and affordable. Over the last six years, Say Yes and its partners have helped more than 3,600 public high school graduates from Buffalo and nearby Syracuse go on to college.

The supports these students have received have included full-tuition scholarships to any public university in New York state, financed largely through local fundraising (after Pell Grants and other outside aid have been taken into account); as well as direct scholarships provided by more than 60 private institutions.

Students and their families have also received services (more commonly described as integrated supports), beginning before a student enters kindergarten and continuing through his or her admission to college. These have included expanded-learning programming, enhanced medical care, counseling, and legal assistance.

For cities and districts seeking to make a college-bound culture a communitywide priority, we offer four steps we consider critical for achieving success:

• The convening of a common table around which every municipal and community partner can come together on a regular basis to strategize various facets of a comprehensive, coordinated system of supports and to chart its progress. In Buffalo, such gatherings take place every few weeks. Senior aides to the mayor and the superintendent (and often those officials themselves) attend, as do representatives from the teachers’ union, philanthropic and other community-based organizations, and local businesses.

• The installation of new data systems that crisscross those same agencies, enabling schools and partners alike to track student performance across an array of benchmarks for college readiness. We suggest that communities then hire and train facilitators to help partners interpret and use such data to tailor supports like tutoring, counseling, and medical care for students (and families) in need.

• The adoption of creative funding strategies that leverage financial resources from a variety of sources—such as from city and county budgets, as well as those from the district and community organizations—to deliver comprehensive scholarships and a broader set of academic, social, and health supports. In Buffalo, for example, a $4.5 million public-private partnership with the county government has allowed a family-support specialist to be embedded in each of the 55 Buffalo public school buildings, with a mandate to integrate social-service delivery and help remove nonacademic barriers to student success.

• The fostering of a new approach to engage teachers, counselors, and others at the school level on questions of how a community might best prepare its students to get to college and succeed once there. One fairly straightforward project would be to draw on expertise within school walls, as well as in the greater community, to help families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

A growing sheaf of evidence suggests the effectiveness of integrated, school-based supports like those we outline above.

In February, the research organization Child Trends documented instances in which such programs were directly responsible for academic achievement and generating a positive “return on investment.” In another report a few weeks later, Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor of the Center for Mental Health in Schools, at the University of California, Los Angeles, declared “connecting school-home-community” to be “essential to the well-being of children and youth and to enhancing equity of opportunity for them to succeed at school and beyond.”

And in an Education Week essay in April, Paul Reville, the Harvard education researcher and former Massachusetts secretary of education, argued for a national competition to design a school system where “physical-health, mental-health, and human-service supports would need to be more fully integrated into the functioning of the educational system.”

We at Say Yes are eager to answer such calls. We would welcome joining with researchers, government leaders, policymakers, and others doing work in this arena to develop a strategy and plan of execution to bring such supports to scale nationally, and help identify those questions still in need of further research. These might include whether some supports are more effective than others in driving college readiness and matriculation.

Such a coalition would also serve as an ideal forum to bring to scale what is learned from that research in ways that would forever change how wraparound supports are installed and delivered across American public schools. The ultimate goal: preparing students to access and complete a vocational, associate’s, bachelor’s, or other postsecondary program.

Say Yes looks forward to sitting at this table.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Making College Access a Reality One City at a Time


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