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In the spring of 2010, the presidents of eleven small, private, non-profit colleges and universities—whose undergraduate enrollment included 50% or more Pell-eligible students—came together for the first Yes We Must Summit, the first convening of a group of private higher education institutions whose primary mission is the education of students from low-income backgrounds. 

During an affirming two days of honest dialogue, a recognition emerged that these institutions share more than primary missions. They usually intervene in the educational life of a student at a later stage than those colleges that “receive” young people who have been on track to go to college from grade school and before. Many of their students earn 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. These realities characterize the current generation of college students whose access to and success in postsecondary education are essential for national economic and social progress.  We have much to share from what we have learned from our students, and we acknowledge there is more we can do to improve our own work as well as finding effective ways to contribute our knowledge to the national conversation on increasing completion rates.

In 2011, with support from the Wal-Mart Foundation, a focused planning meeting for the Coalition was held and attended by the leaders of 26 institutions meeting Coalition 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 we needed to understand ourselves and our students better in order to accomplish these objectives, and plans were made for a preliminary collection of survey data. We became an official 501(c3) organization.

Since 2011, Coalition membership has grown to 36 colleges and universities and 6 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 programs and strategies used on member campuses; 2) email distribution lists for those with similar roles at member institutions in order to facilitate easy communication and the sharing of questions and problem solving solutions; and 3) a central contact to share information and insights with media, policy makers, and other educational association.

In the fall of 2012, The Kresge Foundation awarded the Yes We Must Coalition a $150,000 grant to develop a strategic plan. This award was an important affirmation of the value of our work and mission.

The Coalition continues to earn national recognition and be a strong, collective voice for its members and their students in discussions and policy making about higher education. It is a member of the Secretariat of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), is recognized by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and its officers have met with the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and members of the White House Domestic Policy Council. 
Just four years after the initial Summit, the Yes We Must Coalition is pleased to present its first national conference and acknowledges with gratitude the sponsors—The Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, National Student Clearinghouse, and Royall & Company—who have made possible this opportunity to share our work and increase our learning.