Dispatches of an NCAN Intern: Lessons Learned

June 30, 2016

By Liz Glaser, Graduate Research Assistant

Today is my last day at NCAN, and as I wrap up, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned and what lessons I’ll take into the future. I began this job as I began my final year of graduate school, earning a Master’s in Public Administration, focusing on education policy. I’ve just graduated from George Washington University as I conclude my time in this role, and I learned just as much here as I did in school. With a history of volunteering with education programs, particularly Upward Bound, I’ve always had a specific interest in college access. My work here at NCAN reignited that passion, and reminded me that as the field grows and more programs expand, one important question will always remain: What are we doing to help low-income students enroll in, and then complete, college?

As I researched early awareness, culminating in a literature review and a toolkit that can help each of you expand your early awareness practices, I was reminded, over and over again, how critical early intervention really is. Students who start planning for college in middle school have more time to get good grades, take the right classes, and prepare for the college application process than students who plan for college starting in high school. Additionally, the longer that students imagine themselves on college campuses and make the decisions to get there, the more concrete that option becomes.

My passion for college access, particularly early awareness, only grew during my time at NCAN. Each day was a chance to speak with a new program administrator to learn more about what they’re doing in one city or state. Although the locations and programs vary, the passion and drive was matched in every place. Throughout this experience, I came to understand that programs operate differently from each other, but as long as they share the same goal, the differences are good. Scaling up isn’t always the best idea for successful programs – instead, we should work toward creating more scholarships and programs that do early awareness so they can focus on particular student groups and find success in many places.

One of the most important lessons I learned through this experience was that evaluation is critical. It can be really exciting to discuss program design and details, and highlight the successes of individual students, and those details are necessary, but at some point, outcomes need to be measured. Over time, programs need to improve student success outcomes, and ensuring that programs are evaluated independently and fairly is a crucial aspect to positive growth.

Effective evaluation, however, also requires patience. Particularly in the early awareness field, cohorts must be followed for a decade of schooling in order to discover the effects. We can measure enrollment rates, GPAs, and many other factors as proxies, but it is important to stay committed to long-term evaluation as well. As early awareness programs continue to expand their reach, I look forward to more robust evaluations with short-term and long-term outcomes. Evaluation can also remind us that passion and excitement help get a program off the ground, but they must be targeted toward one major goal: actually helping students succeed in college. Making sure programs measure their progress means they have a clearer understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Early awareness takes many forms: information campaigns, scholarship programs, comprehensive academic models and college savings accounts. There are multiple methods for people to begin planning early awareness strategies, and as I’ve learned more about them over the past year, I’ve been reminded regularly that all of them are necessary components. Students respond to outreach differently, and it’s important for programs to offer a variety of outreach methods to have the biggest impact. Some programs work within schools, some add curriculum for after school, and some have nothing to do with academics, but each is an integral element to a set of strategies that can reach students in multiple ways.

Working in college access will always be the main driver of my career. One of the most rewarding parts of this role was getting to connect with so many members of the college access community who do their best daily to ensure the work they do helps the students who need it. Of all the lessons I’ve learned during my time at NCAN, I think the one that sticks out the most is that while programs falter, setbacks occur, or evaluations aren’t favorable, what’s important is that we keep at it. We make adjustments, we seek new information, and we continue working for the students who need us.

Sincere thanks to my supervisor, Carrie Warick, and the entire NCAN staff, who’ve taught me so much.

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