NCAN Board Chair Marlene Ibsen on Travelers EDGE's Combo of College and Career Success

January 25, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation 

Since 2007, Travelers EDGE (Empowering Dreams for Graduation and Employment), a program from The Travelers Indemnity Company, has been assisting underrepresented students at the middle- and high-school levels and at postsecondary institutions to prepare for strong futures and college and career success. EDGE partners with community-based organizations, colleges, and universities to “increase the pipeline of underrepresented students who complete bachelor's degrees and are prepared for a career at Travelers or within the Insurance and Financial Services industry.”

Different partners focus on different aspects of the college-to-career pipeline. Middle and high school partners help to promote awareness of college opportunities and improve preparation for college admission. Postsecondary partners focus on college entrance, retention and bachelor’s degree completion, as well as strengthening the pipeline of college students interested in and prepared for working in the insurance and financial services industries. Across the entire pipeline there is a focus on awareness of careers in this industry and how they apply to Travelers’ work. 

Marlene Ibsen, vice president of community relations at Travelers, became chair of NCAN’s Board of Directors in September. NCAN recently had the opportunity to ask Marlene some questions about Travelers EDGE and the broader college access and success field. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

There are many different ways for companies to get involved with philanthropy and social action, and, from there, many issues to address. What led Travelers to choose this mechanism of action and issue area with Travelers EDGE?

Through corporate funding and the Travelers Foundation, Travelers targets its giving to three priorities: building thriving neighborhoods, creating culturally enriched communities, and our major focus, improving academic and career success.

Our board of directors wanted to create a program that would increase youth employment and graduation rates in urban communities. They also wanted to generate awareness for careers in the insurance and financial services industry among low-income and minority youth to create another avenue for diverse talent to flow into the company.

We noticed a major gap between students who are the first in their families to go to college and those who are more educationally and financially affluent. We want to help close that gap, which is why we created what is now Travelers EDGE. We pulled together a group internally from areas including community relations, diversity and inclusion, talent acquisition and university relations. The combination of these groups enabled us to fulfill the philanthropic and talent aspects of the program while also making connections with community organizations and universities.

How are program participants for Travelers EDGE identified? Has that changed at all since 2007?

Students must submit an application and go through an extensive interview process. We have program staff at our 15 partner schools who inform students about the program and guide them through enrollment. We’re always adjusting the program to improve the outcome for students, the company and our partner institutions.

To date, what is the total number of students who have been served by Travelers EDGE?

So far, 399 scholars have completed the Travelers EDGE program and received a bachelor’s degree.

What are the plans, if any, to scale Travelers EDGE? Which aspects of the program do you think are most easily scaled, and where are there pain points?

Travelers EDGE started in Connecticut, Minnesota and Maryland, and we are expanding to Georgia. We are also looking at other areas where Travelers has a major presence.

We know that scholarship support, mentorship and professional development are the critical aspects of the program, and it’s important to maintain those. Having the resources in place to uphold those key components becomes more challenging as we expand.

Is there a set Travelers EDGE curriculum that you ask partners to implement, or are they extended the freedom to develop and implement that themselves so long as it fits certain guidelines?

The program looks slightly different at each college and university and in each market. What doesn’t vary is that our students are getting the combination of academic, scholarship and mentor support, as well as professional development.

Could you identify some specific curriculum areas that Travelers EDGE focuses on in terms of students’ career readiness? Are these concrete things like interviewing and resume development, or broader focuses like professional development and career planning?

Travelers EDGE supports career readiness through a number of opportunities offered both to Travelers EDGE scholars at the post-secondary level and to middle and high school students in our partner schools. These range from awareness of the importance of a college degree to general awareness of the insurance industry and the many careers available in the earlier grades, to professional development workshops, mentoring, internships and job shadowing opportunities in the secondary and post-secondary settings. The professional development workshops cover “soft skills,” such as business etiquette, networking and interview tips, as well as specific job-ready topics, such as computer programs (e.g., Microsoft Excel) and presentation skills.

Travelers EDGE places a lot of emphasis on outcomes measurement and accountability. Why has that been a hallmark of the program, and how has your capacity for tracking student outcomes evolved over time? What are your thoughts on the current state of outcomes reporting in the college access and success field?

When we started Travelers EDGE, we knew that we needed a way to measure the impact the program had on students, the company and the community. We worked with a consulting firm that helped us build a framework and methodology for collecting data. The framework provides us with the outcomes we’re working toward and the metrics we are trying to advance. It’s a work in progress, and we’re always collecting feedback from our partners and students to strengthen our data and reporting.

Measuring success and reporting outcomes has improved over the last 10 years in the college access and success field. Several organizations are working to define common outcomes and offer best practices on collecting metrics for college readiness and completion.

What lessons has Travelers EDGE learned since 2007 that you think might be applicable for other programs or organizations?

One of the lessons we’ve learned over the program’s 10 years, is that it would be helpful to create a fund to help reduce the chance of Travelers EDGE scholars dropping out of school because of financial burdens. The cost of college is a major barrier for many students, and while scholarships ease much of the expense, unforeseen challenges may arise that set students back financially. To address this, we implemented an emergency fund that allows program participants to apply for additional funding to cover unexpected expenses.

We also learned that a strong support structure is important to a student’s overall success in the program. So, we created a network of professional and peer mentors, and put a program manager at each partner school to help students navigate college.

What are the major challenges facing the college access and success field right now? Do you have any thoughts as to potential fixes for overcoming these challenges?

A challenge we’ve seen is the gap between what higher education provides and what corporate America needs. The curriculum taught at colleges and universities does not always align with the skills needed in corporate careers. In fact, this year’s Travelers Risk Index found that 50 percent of businesses worry about not being able to attract and retain the right talent and a skilled workforce. While this is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for companies to collaborate and build relationships with educational institutions to tailor curriculum that will prepare students for corporate careers.

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