In 2010, eleven presidents of small, private, non-profit colleges and universities whose undergraduate enrollment includes 50% or more Pell eligible students came together for the first time for the Yes We Must Summit. This was the first convening of a group of private higher education institutions whose primary mission is the bachelor-level, liberal arts education of students from low-income backgrounds. These institutions usually intervene in the educational life of a student at a later stage than the old version of a college “receiving” a young person who has been on track to go to college from grade school and before. Many of our students earned average grades in large, urban high schools or poor rural schools. Many are adults who are trying to work, raise families and complete a college degree. Many are the first in their family to attend college and most are from communities of color. This is the reality of the current generation of college students whose access to and success in postsecondary education is essential for national economic and social progress.
During an affirming two days of honest sharing, a recognition emerged that the success of our sector of higher education is critical for the success of our country, and there is much we can do to improve our own work and share our work with others. We offer a choice that should be open to all people, regardless of income level.
Following the 2010 Summit, with support from the Wal-Mart Foundation, a focused planning meeting for the Yes We Must Coalition was held in 2011, attended by the leaders of 26 institutions meeting our criteria. With uncharacteristic rapidity, this group agreed to organize formally to 1) contribute to an increase in graduation rates of underrepresented students on our own campuses and throughout the country; 2) collaborate to lower the costs of higher education; 3) become a voice, supported by data, for educating the public and influencing policy and practice that impacts our students. It was also agreed that to accomplish all of these objectives, we needed to understand ourselves and our students better, and plans were made for a preliminary collection of survey data. In addition, officers were elected, and a mission statement and goals were adopted. Shortly thereafter, the Yes We Must Coalition became a 501c3 organization, drafted By-Laws, began the construction of a website and distributed, collected and analyzed a preliminary survey of members.
Since 2011 our membership has grown to 33 colleges and universities and 5 associates—all committed to the goal of access to and success through to graduation for low-income/1st generation students. We have established 1) a Resource Exchange, through which members share and access data for research purposes; 2) email distribution lists for those with similar jobs at member institutions—one each for chief academic, development, financial, and student life officers—in order to facilitate easy communication and the sharing of questions and problem solving solutions; and 3) cost saving programs such as webinars, collective purchasing/licensing of software, and sharing and helping to implement best practices.
In the fall of 2012, The Kresge Foundation awarded Yes We Must a $150,000 grant to develop a strategic plan that defines the Coalition’s goals and assures its sustainability for the future. This award was an important affirmation of the value of our work and mission.
Already the Coalition has earned national recognition and is becoming a strong, collective voice for its members and their students in discussions and policy making about higher education. Coalition officers have met with the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and members of the White House Domestic Policy Council; the Coalition recently was voted membership on the Secretariat of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and is recognized by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), an association of nonprofit independent colleges and universities that has invited the Coalition to present at their upcoming conferences for college presidents and chief academic officers. The Coalition has also been asked to present to a college access “affinity group,” established by the Special Assistant to Secretary of Education and consisting of school administrators, state policy and research staff, internal DOE staff, counselors and non-profits. We welcome all opportunities to engage with those in a position to make a difference in the degree attainment success of low-income/ 1st generation students.