Opening up the college playbook: Twin Cities-based College Possible gives low-income students a helping hand

College Possible coaches, alum and current students gather for an event at Augsburg College to share advice. Photo By: Tyra-Davis Jenkins

College applications are a handful. They can be especially difficult for students who don’t have trusted adults guiding them through the process.

Luckily there is College Possible, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping high school students understand how to get into college.

As executive director of College Possible, Sara Dziuk believes in a diverse future. She oversees the Twin Cities-based program and its 23 area high schools that pair low-income students of color with “coaches”—recent college graduates who give a year of service through AmeriCorps and are “ready to change the world.”

“Over the course of those two years in high school, students spend over 300 hours in our program. We offer the program every day after school, we ask students to come in twice a week to attend our after school sessions. They last about two hours each,” Dziuk said.

“Students have a coach every step of the way. Through their whole process they have a coach, one in high school and then one in college—no matter where they go to school, whether it be Minnesota or Twin Cities, or anywhere across the nation.”

Could College Possible work for you? Dziuk explains how the program is doing its part to close the achievement gap and help Minnesota create the next generation of talented college graduates.

Can you tell me who College Possible aims to serve?

Our mission is to make college admission a success. And make it possible for low-income students. So we start working with students, and we actually do some college prep talks with underclassmen, ninth and tenth grade students … It’s a very light touch we do early on with students. Then we recruit students to be in our program, spring of their sophomore year. It’s typically students who are low income or qualify for free and reduced price lunch, that have a GPA of 2.0 or greater.

They have to want to go to college and are willing to invest their time as a student that’s preparing to go to college and be successful. Then we admit students into our program and spend all of junior year with them, really focused on increasing their ACT scores and their college entrance exam scores. We also expose our students to campus visits and get them thinking about summer enrichment programs and opportunities that would be good for them. We help them start to create a “top five” list of schools they might be interested in. Then we spend senior year with those students working with that top five list and help them start applying for colleges.

Our goal is to have all of our students apply to at least five different schools, and support them in that process. We also work with every student to complete the FAFSA, to secure their financial aid that they need to go to college. We also help them identify private scholarship opportunities that our students can apply for.

What are the requirements for a student to be in College Possible?

In order to apply for the program, they need to be income eligible and GPA eligible. Students should have recommendations from teachers or guidance counselors. Parents need to sign a permission slip and the student goes through an interview with us, as well as completes an application.

Can you tell me a little bit about your role at College Possible?

My job is to oversee everything that College Possible is doing. We have 23 high schools where we have students, and we have more than 4,000 students who are in college at 300 universities. I spend most of my time thinking about our programming to support our students—making sure that we are reaching as many students as possible in the Twin Cities. I also spend a lot of time raising dollars and awareness for our program, so it takes a lot of resources to make a big program like this happen. So I spend much of my time out in the community, talking to media and groups, and our elected officials. I tell them about College Possible and educate them on college applications and success. Then I work with corporations and individual donors to ask them to support us financially so that we can support more students.

Can you tell me a little bit about your coaches?

We have coaches that are AmeriCorps members, recent college graduates. They are passionate. They are realistic. They are the smartest people I know, And they are ready to change the world. The first thing they are doing, oftentimes, is spending a year in service. They’re full-time volunteers and they are coaches for our students, so we pair that coach with students, either in a high school to work with 40 high school students or we have coaches for our college students. Our college coaches typically work with 200 students, perhaps in a number of different universities or colleges where we have students attend.

What are the various partnerships College Possible has with different colleges? 

Some colleges host our students on college visits, so they are really excited to have College Possible students come to their campus and start to picture themselves on that campus. We have about 30 college partners who want our students to explore their campus. We also have some deeper partners who work with colleges that either really want a lot of students to attend, or we have a lot of current students attending and want to make sure those students are supported and successful. So those partners have many students on campus, for example Augsburg College or University of Minnesota.

What happens to students who are in the program and don’t follow through?

When a student joins College Possible, we are making a commitment to see them through college admission and college success. Whether that student likes it or not, we are determined to see them through. So their coach will track them down in the lunch room, or before school, or between classes to remind them that we want to see them in session. Coaches remind them that we want to be working with them through the process.

Ninety-eight percent of the students in our program earn admission to college. We see all of our students through college, and if there is ever a stop along their way that they did not earn admission right away, or they’re in college for a semester and they need to leave for financial academic or personal reasons, we will continue to support that student. There have been many times over the years where a student is struggling, so our coach begins calling them. Until that student is ready to re-enroll, the coach will help them do that.

How do you measure success?

We are very result-focused as an organization. With our juniors, we strive to try and increase their ACT scores. In our history, students have increased their ACT scores by 22 percent—which shows that they are a much more competitive candidate for college than they were at the beginning of the year. In our history, 98 percent of our students have earned admission to college. Currently, a College Possible student is 10 times more likely to graduate from college than their low-income peers.

What are your hopes for College Possible in the future?

I hope to see even more students become successful. We want to see more and more of our students persist in graduating from college, because it’s more about just earning admission to college. We want more of our students to graduate. And then for them to be here, in the Twin Cities, working or volunteering and giving back. We want to see future generations change because of the education our students are receiving today.