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 was much we can do to improve our own work and share the work with others. We offer a choice that should be open to all people, regardless of income level.
Following the convening of the 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 twenty-six institutions meeting our criteria. With uncharacteristic rapidity, this group agreed that we needed 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. Plans were made for a preliminary collection of survey data. At this meeting, officers were elected, a mission statement and goals were adopted and all agreed that members would contribute $1000 a year toward the operation of the organization. Subsequently, the Yes We Must Coalition has become a 501c3 organization, drafted By-Laws, received $27,000 in membership dues, begun the construction of a website and distributed, collected and analyzed a preliminary survey of members.