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Leveraging the Power of Coalition to Support College Success

Over the past four months, we have ended each Q&A in this CSI blog series with the same question: “What keeps you up at night?” Across the board, these worries have focused on the health and well-being of college students and their families who were already struggling, and these concerns have remained—and perhaps even intensified, as the devastating effects of the pandemic have become more and more concrete. What keeps me up at night is the impact of COVID-19 and the swift and sharp decline in higher education enrollment both locally and nationally,” Janae Aptaker says in this month’s post, “Our students are suffering loss on so many levels, even as they fight to advance their futures.

But today, exactly one year after we first launched the CSI series in response to COVID-19, the conversation is beginning to shift toward recovery. “I’m hopeful that we are reaching a turning point in the pandemic over the next few months as we continue to roll out vaccines across the country,” Lorna Contreras-Townsend says now, “but there is a lot of recovery work in education and access to economic mobility after a year of lockdown and economic downturn. Even as we begin to contemplate recovery, there are still deep concerns to lose sleep over.

The Northern California College Promise Coalition (NCCPC) did not have a global pandemic in mind when they came together in 2019, but joining forces has put the coalition in a unique position to support students across the region through the hardships of COVID-19. Nonprofit coalitions offer many benefitsincreasing systemic impact, expanding influence on policy, and sharing data and best practicesall of which have taken on an added urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a coalition of nonprofit organizations, mayoral offices, and education leaders, NCCPC has worked to support at-risk students across Northern California during this time—sharing resources related to COVID-19, advancing public policy, and securing partnerships with universities and hiring organizations that go beyond what a single organization could do on its own.

For this Q&A, CAP Executive Director and NCCPC member Melissa Fries assembled other NCCPC leaders to discuss their experiences:

from left to right (first row): Janae Aptaker, Director, Stockton Scholars Program and Co-Chair, NCCPC Campus Partnerships Committee Patrice Berry, Executive Advisor, City of Oakland Mayor’s Office Mia Bonta, Chief Executive Officer, Oakland Promise and Co-Chair, NCCPC Policy Committee from left to right (second row): Lorna Contreras-Townsend, Advocate (Individual Member) and Co-Chair, NCCPC Workforce Partnerships Committee Meredith Curry, Manager, NCCPC and National College Attainment Network Federal Advocacy Fellow for 2020-21 David Silver, Director of Education, City of Oakland and Chair, NCCPC Steering Committee
From left to right (first row): Janae Aptaker, Patrice Berry, and Mia Bonta.
From left to right (second row): Lorna Contreras-Townsend, Meredith Curry, and David Silver.


What are some examples of things you were able to achieve as a coalition that were not possible as individual organizations?

Meredith: With more than 47,600 students and 12 counties represented, we’ve found that people want to engage with NCCPC, as members and as partners. We can leverage scarce resources, data-informed research, best practices, and real-time insights and put them to work for our students. We can do more when we do it together. For example, 10,000 Degrees (serving Marin and Sonoma counties) shares insights with Richmond Promise and Making Waves Foundation in Contra Costa County, who collaborate with Stockton Scholars in San Joaquin Countyand now we have a recipe for capacity building that reduces inequities in operations across cities and counties. All of these organizations that are models of success in college completion in their own neighborhoods get to learn from and about each other. Through these cross-sector, cross-region collaborations we can map out successful pathways across Northern California and the state.

David: The biggest thing that NCCPC does is that it leverages the power of our collective to increase educational equity and college completion for our BIPOC students in ways that we could not do alone. For example, we have been able to secure a partnership with Cal State East Bay (CSUEB) that provides extra support for students from our collective organizations across Northern California. (A huge thanks to Leroy Morishita who made this partnership possible!) This includes coordinated pre-enrollment outreach to ensure that our admitted students transition smoothly from high school to CSUEB, as well as coordinated care with on- and off-campus partners to ensure students are assigned to advisors and other supports for timely progress to degrees and career development. Some of our members have also been able to advance policy by joining with other organizations to support a bill that restricts scholarship displacement as part of an equity-focused college affordability equation, which is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a coalition, we can better leverage the already scarce public and private resources our students deserve and earn to cover their real cost of going to college.

Mia: I co-chair the NCCPC Policy Committee, where we focus on legislative proposals that enhance opportunities for young people, especially those of BIPOC and lower-income communities, to achieve post-secondary education and their career aspirations. Working with NCCPC, among other policy partners, helps us at Oakland Promise to realize our goals of broad, long-term, systemic change in tandem with our work directly serving our students and families.

Lorna: In terms of workforce development, although each participating organization had their own career development departments, it better served the community to come together as a coalition and focus on best practices, support each other by learning from each other, support other organizations who are members in helping build workforce development, and gain the attention of some of the largest employers as a united front to create access and opportunities for those we served. Companies are looking for big impact opportunities as they recruit, and entry-level graduates with the potential to become the next leaders of our workforce. The coalition provides the opportunity to tap directly into a pool of strong, diverse candidates across a variety of talent industries, all while providing exposure to the individual organizations who prepare the youth for those possibilities.

How has your work been impacted by COVID-19?

Patrice: We realized how serious COVID-19 was when students began returning home from college as campuses closed, and many reached out for help. They needed money to get home, for instance, and computers so they could continue taking classes and doing work off campus. At first, we were triaging support, and as we heard more and more voices, we began organizing. We saw that there were dozens of resources from many different organizations available to students, but we noticed that in order for students to find them, they would have to jump from website to website. The COVID-19 Resource Guide was created to aggregate what we thought might be the most relevant resources and organize them in a way that was more easily navigablecomprehensive, but not so overwhelming that students couldn’t readily get to the information they needed. Partners from across the area weighed in, including NCCPC members, as well as the student services offices at some of our partner colleges.

David: The COVID-19 Resource Guide provides information to support students struggling with food, internet, employment, health and well-being, resources for undocumented students, and so much more. This guide would have taken tons of time for individual organizations to do on our own, but this network-resourced guide allowed us to increase our efficiency and our impact.

Janae: The work is becoming increasingly collaborative. Exchanging resources with like-minded college promise organizations and scholarship programs was extremely helpful, especially when the supports were regionally available to students and families throughout Northern California. Additional discussions have also started taking place about how to collaborate as a coalition through virtual events that many member organizations have in common, such as College Signing Day or annual college success and persistence events for students. NCCPC has already shown leadership in this area as the host of the first Northern California–wide College Promise Convening, attended and co-facilitated by top experts in the higher education field. I also think that COVID-19 has added a heightened sense of urgency for all of us as we acknowledge that the average student served by our organizations would be at an even greater risk of negative outcomes—in terms of education, health, and economics—all rooted in pre-existing inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Lorna: It has been such an important time to come together and support the work of each of the member organizations in a holistic way to make sure the youth we serve are still feeling connected, productive, and motivated as things slowed down. Being that 2020 was the first full year we were in place as an established coalition, that partnership could not have come at a better time. We’re all in this together, and the challenges that came our way are all similar in nature. Having a collective group where thought partnership can be shared when some of the most daunting situations approached our communities in an economic downturn was essential to keeping balanced and grounded in the work. Whether it was housing, finances, internship/job availability, or admissionsthere was a group of people dedicated to pushing forward through the tests that the pandemic put our community through.

Mia: The coalition’s work is even more vital than before due to the effects of COVID-19. So many of our students were faced with the challenges of inadequate devices for distance learning. In Northern California, this situation is more acute in many of our urban communities. Studies have shown that COVID-19 has impacted the Black and Latinx communities more severely in many aspectseducation, health, mental health, and family stress. The NCCPC is devoted to ensuring that these students and families will receive all the help that is needed to reduce the deleterious effects that will compromise the aspirations of these students for achieving post-secondary education.

What advice would you give to other organizations looking to build this kind of coalition?

Meredith: Communication, vision, and implementation are critical. And so is the ability to have someone drive the vision and initiatives of the coalition. As its manager, I see my role as facilitator of all the incredible insights, learning, opportunities, and shared challenges that our members and leaders have, organizing them into initiatives and projects that we can act on as a coalition and as individual organizations, and bringing to the surface adapted and new programs and resources that serve BIPOC students throughout Northern California. To do this, we need member organizations and advocates who are committed and willing to participate and engage. To continue and scale this work, we need funders, supporters, allies, and policymakers willing to advance, champion, and invest in our work in the region.

David: People want to be inspired by vision. It’s key to have a big goal of what you want to accomplish, clarity of what the value proposition is for each organization and most importantly the students, and what they are each expected to contribute. Think of what you can leverage to make a greater impact for students.

What keeps you up at night?

Meredith: Everyday there are missed opportunities because organizations aren’t connected, best practices haven’t been shared, data hasn’t been utilized. What happens when these spaces do not exist for brave, bold, and ambitious leaders with strong models and proof-of-concepts to share and leverage their learning and successes beyond the boundaries of their organization’s footprint?

Janae: What keeps me up at night is the impact of COVID-19 and the swift and sharp decline in higher education enrollment both locally and nationally. Achieving a higher education degree is already an uphill feat, estimated to be a six-year endeavor for the majority of college students. The pattern that we are seeing is that some students are opting out of higher ed (at least for the time being) just to cope with the stresses of the pandemic and/or to support their families and loved ones in need. These pressures are enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed and discouraged, and in this same vein, I worry about the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our students. While navigating and persisting to degree completion in higher ed is already a challenge for most students, the increased depression, anxiety, loneliness, and inability to access human connection and community gives me great concern. Our students are suffering loss on so many levels, even as they fight to advance their futures.

Lorna: For me, what keeps me up at night is knowing how the pandemic has directly impacted the communities who are underresourced and lack the support to mobilize in their own economic recovery process. People have lost jobs, businesses, homes, financial stabilitythe damages are extensive, but it also drives home the importance of a collective like the coalition, coming together to help solve those existing and newly created systemic issues on the road to recovery. I’m hopeful that we are reaching a turning point in the pandemic over the next few months as we continue to roll out vaccines across the country, but there is a lot of recovery work in education and access to economic mobility after a year of lockdown and economic downturn.

Mia: What keeps me up at night is thinking about the impact that COVID-19 is having on the educational opportunities for our youth of color, and how we can mitigate those challenges. That’s why the work of organizations like NCCPC is so important, creating sustainable ways to support our young people during and after the pandemic. COVID-19 exposed the inequities among our communities. Our team is committed to working every day so that we can create a more perfect world where all children—regardless of their race, ethnicity, and income—can participate in the American dream of achieving the education and career of their choosing.