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 a Yes We Must Summit, a gathering of like-minded institutions to consider their role in responding to President’s Obama’s call to the nation about the urgent need for more college graduates. They were all committed to degree attainment by their students, and they knew that, in order to increase the number of Americans with post-secondary credentials, the focus needed to be on students from the lower end of the socio-economic scale and on those whose parents did not have college degrees.
The eleven presidents spent two days sharing, with remarkable candor, their struggles and their victories with graduating underrepresented students as well as their feelings of isolation from the rest of the higher education community. They realized they had more in common than a primary educational mission. They all 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. 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 college students whose access to and success in postsecondary education are essential for national economic and social progress. The presidents also realized that together they have much to share from what they have learned from their students and that there is much they can do to improve their own work and find ways to effectively contribute their knowledge to the national conversation on increasing completion rates.
The following year, with support from the Walmart Foundation, a larger meeting was convened in Washington, DC, and a decision was made to define and distinguish the Coalition as a distinct sector in higher education with particular relevance to the problem of unequal access to and completion of college by underserved students. By 2012 the Coalition was established as a 501(c)3 organization with By-Laws, a Board of Directors and a mission to increase the degree attainment of low-income students by collaborating with one another and being a visible voice for our institutions and our students.
With help from The Kresge Foundation, the Coalition engaged in a year of strategic planning, which culminated in hosting a national conference, Fulfilling Our Responsibility: Higher Education for the New Student Majority, in April 2014. The conference focused on the responsibility of higher education to develop and share strategies for the success of low-income students, and it accomplished many goals, including garnering media attention and engaging several non-member schools and organizations. There are now 36 colleges and universities (representing 21 states) and 8 affiliated individuals and organizations who are members of the Coalition.
By the fall of 2015, Coalition membership included 39 colleges and universities. With support from Lumina Foundation for planning and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Institute expenses, the Coalition held its first members-only Institute, Collaborating To Fulfill Our Responsibility to the New Student Majority, in Roanoke, VA. Teams from 32 member institutions engaged in discussions as campus teams and with those from similar positions across institutions to explore ideas for collaborative projects. Nine projects were identified, and campus teams committed to at least two selected projects for further exploration. Ongoing work of the Coalition will include helping to coordinate, find funding for, and implement these projects in order to increase degree completion.