September 17, 2009

YES Prep: Right School Choices for You

This case study explores the “nuts and bolts” of how YES Prep Public Schools, a charter organization based in Houston, Texas, succeeds in preparing low-income students not only to graduate from high school, but also to enter college ready to meet the challenges of a post-secondary education.

We work hard to ensure that students are looking at and choosing schools that are a good fit all the way around, including financially. We want them to make a informed decision on Senior Signing Day and then actually graduate from that college four years later. (Donald Kamentz, Director of College Initiatives)

YES Prep focuses on helping students apply to and succeed at colleges that are a good fit academically, culturally, and financially. As Chad Spurgeon, Director of College Counseling at YES Prep’s North Central campus, explains: “A big part of [our work] is making sure the college is going to provide [our students] with the personal and financial support that they are going to need to be successful.” YES Prep staff have learned that they need to work with students to look beyond the brand or the face-value financial package to the specifics of the college environment and offer to find the right fit for each student. Such choices are not always obvious for students as financial aid packages are complex and the on-campus social environment can be difficult to ascertain from the outside. Many packages appear to be financially feasible but may have strings attached that create risks for students. Other packages may require a family contribution that looks daunting but in reality is a better financial option. Providing every student with the right school choices for their situation is a multi-step process that requires intensive hands-on support and in-house knowledge of a variety of colleges and their processes:

1. Deciding where to apply
Through experiences such as spring trips and summer opportunities, most students have seen at least 20 colleges by the time they are seniors (ranging from large to small, public to private, rural to suburban to urban and denominational to non-denominational). Through daily Junior and Senior Seminar classes and frequent individual interactions, the college counseling team builds on these experiences and works with each student to refine what he or she is looking for in a college experience. The goal is for every student to apply to between seven and 10 schools that are considered a “good fit” because they are aligned with the student’s academic credentials, criteria, and values.

2. Preparing financially 
Encouraging students to apply to colleges that will provide adequate financial support is critical, as research into the college persistence of low-income students indicates that financial challenges are a major reason for dropping out. [4] According to The College Board, the annual cost for a student to attend public college, even after public financial aid, can be almost 40 percent of a low-income family’s income, while private college costs can be as much as 70 percent. Thus, the YES Prep team uses Junior and Senior Seminars and parent workshops to educate families about the financial aid application process. Probable financial support is a key criterion when deciding where student should apply, and counselors work with each student to make sure that they are taking advantage of all available scholarship and financial aid opportunities. To date, YES Prep’s 447 graduates have earned over $26.5 million in scholarships, grants, and financial aid, with the Class of 2009 receiving an average of more than $40,000 per student.

3. Selecting the right school 
After acceptance letters and financial aid packages arrive, counselors work with families to understand the options and trade-offs associated with different schools and to make informed decisions built around students’ unique academic, financial, and personal circumstances.  There can often be a difference between the school choice that looks right (based on name, or reputation, or friends’ choices) and the school choice that gives a student the best chance of graduating.  This difference is often driven by the financial aid package, and the college counseling team considers it an important part of their job to make sure students and their families fully understand what they will and will not be getting when with each college option.

4. Creating YES Prep graduate-friendly environments
The college counseling team needs to have a deep understanding of a wide variety of colleges and universities. Therefore, YES Prep increasingly invests in sending its college counselors to conferences and on college visits in order to learn from the field and form important relationships both with other counselors and with college admissions staffs. YES Prep has also moved to form strategic partnerships with colleges and universities that support its mission and can provide graduates with the academic, social and financial supports they need to succeed. YES Prep staff benefit from having a group of postsecondary partners they feel comfortable recommending to students; the partners benefit from student applicants they know are prepared for success; and the students who matriculate benefit from joining the growing on-campus networks of other YES Prep students who can provide support throughout the college experience.

Next: Getting to the Finish Line >>

4 Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, "Empty Promises: The Myth of College Access in America," June, 2002.


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