OpportunityTexas Connects with the Texas College Access Network

Our guest blogger this month is Alejandra Barbosa, the Operations and Program Manager at Educate Texas. She coordinates the Texas College Access Network initiatives in San Antonio and north Texas.
I recently had lunch with a friend who is Dean of Enrollment at a local university who shared with me her excitement about the upcoming freshmen orientation sessions and campus visits.  As we sat through lunch, I couldn’t help but remember how much I loved my college experience.  I made great friends, learned from and worked with brilliant professors, experienced critical personal growth, and created many fond memories.
However, there’s one part I don’t look back on very fondly… the application process!   I remember my high school senior year was a very difficult experience, filled with confusion and dread.  I wondered if I had filled out the right form, if I had make the deadline, if I would be accepted by my preferred schools or if I could secure enough financial aid to cover my tuition and living expenses.  My college application process was not a fun one, so I can only imagine what it must be like for a first generation college go-er with parents who are unable to guide them through the process; or a low-income student who faces even more daunting financial aid needs.
Fortunately, there are resources out there for students.  The National College Access Network (NCAN)surveyed more than 1,600 organizations across Texas (including school districts, non-profit and for profit college access service providers, institutions of higher education, etc.) committed to helping students navigate the college-going process  and asked them about their work.  NCAN found the majority of these organizations needed help, because no single organization is able to provide all the resources and supports (e.g. application assistance, financial aid information, college advising, academic preparation, test preparation) that Texas students need.
As a result, NCAN asked Educate Texas to develop the Texas College Access Network (TxCAN), to serve as a backbone resource to these organizations.  In January 2011, we set out across the state to ask organizations what they needed from a network, so we could develop a targeted strategy to support them.  After about six months, we learned the best way we could help these organizations was by:

  1. Promoting awareness of their work and of other resources available so they know how to better support students;
  2. Helping facilitate better alignment and coordination so they don’t duplicate work but rather, benefit from other’s experience and resources; and
  3. Providing tools and resources that help evaluate or monitor the impact on student outcomes.

We also learned that it would be nearly impossible to start at a statewide level.  As a result, Educate Texas launched two regional pilots – in San Antonio and North Texas – where we could test out this network concept, see what works and identify what is scalable across the state.  Launched in the fall of last year, we have already been thrilled with the progress to date.  In both regions, Educate Texas is working with organizations that are deeply committed to supporting students.  We’ve seen groups, that previously had not all been in a room together, join to start sharing ideas about how they can learn from each other to be more effective.
One great example stands out to me.  In April, Don Baylor and Leslie Helmcamp from the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP)/OpportunityTexas came to San Antonio to meet with the San Antonio network, which goes by the name of the San Antonio College Access Network (SA-CAN).  They presented to the group of school district representatives, high school counselors, higher education partners, and community-based organizations on recent financial aid and college access/completion research CPPP conducted, as well as statewide policy and legislative updates.  We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our San Antonio network.  In fact, we heard this was the most useful part of that month’s network meeting.
Many of the participants were unfamiliar with all the resources that CPPP shared and benefited from CPPP’s tailored presentation, which gave local data and statistics that were relevant to the San Antonio community.  These organizations are often resource constrained and don’t have the capacity to stay abreast of all policy changes, so we greatly appreciated CPPP’s synthesis of the relevant legislation.
I don’t doubt this meeting and CPPP’s continued participation in TxCAN will have a powerful impact on the networks.  In fact, when we survey organizations and ask them why they joined SA-CAN, they consistently identified “developing a common statewide policy agenda for college access” as one of the top priorities.  CPPP/Opportunity Texas will be a key partner for us as we develop this common agenda.
I know there will be challenges ahead and there is still a lot of work to do to substantially increase the number of students who enroll in postsecondary education. However, I’m inspired by the organizations we’ve been fortunate to work with in both San Antonio and North Texas.  Their dedication motivates us to continue doing whatever we can to support them, advocate for them, and find resources to scale effective practices.
We must do more to ensure students have the support they need to successfully pursue their postsecondary aspirations and set the framework for success down the road.  Undoubtedly, collaboration is key to making a lasting impact.
(This piece was originally posted on the Opportunity Texas Opportunity Digest blog on August 2. Opportunity Texas is an initiative created by the Center for Public Policy Priorities and RAISE Texas to develop and advance a more comprehensive strategy to move more Texas families beyond living paycheck-to-paycheck and toward greater economic opportunity through education, saving, and asset building. Learn more athttp://www.opportunitytexas.org/ )

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