News: College Access & Success

How Bridgeport Public Education Fund Uses Workshops, Incentives to Promote College Success

Thursday, March 21, 2019  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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NCAN, with the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is supporting 12 members as they begin or expand postsecondary success services for students. Using results from the Benchmarking Project, NCAN identified programs providing success services that have achieved positive postsecondary outcomes for students. In this blog series, we will profile some of these programs and hear from them about their approach, their advice, and lessons other member programs can learn. Today, we profile The Bridgeport Public Education Fund. See previous entries on The Scholarship Foundation of St. LouisThe Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation, and Partnership for the Future.

The Bridgeport Public Education Fund, Inc. (BPEF) was established in 1983 to address the high dropout rate and low college attendance rate of students who attended the Bridgeport Public Schools in Connecticut. By 1988, BPEF implemented its first student-focused program, Mentoring for Academic Achievement and College Success (MAACS). MAACS pairs high school students with a trained college student to develop postsecondary goals. Although the program was successful in getting students into college, it was not as successful in helping those students persist or graduate from college. By 2003, BPEF added another component, the College Assistance Program (CAP), to address college persistence and graduation of the students mentored through MAACS.   

BPEF provides three primary “success services” to students enrolled in postsecondary institutions: 

  • College readiness workshops: BPEF offers workshops to students who have participated in MAACS for two or more years and have been admitted into a postsecondary institution. Students attending the one-day workshops learn about the interpersonal and academic skills necessary for college success. Workshops focused on topics like the first-year experience, planning ahead/academic advisement, college writing, and dollars and sense/financial aid are hosted on a college campus and facilitated by college personnel to assist students with the transition from high school to college. When students complete the workshops, they receive a certificate of completion and are admitted into the CAP.

  • Financial incentive for CAP students: Each semester students are enrolled in college, they are required to submit a copy of their schedule and grades to BPEF. Once the staff reviews a student’s grades and/or schedule, the student receives a stipend. This process continues each semester for which the student provides proof of continuing their postsecondary education.
    • Students are also eligible to apply for four scholarships earmarked for CAP students. Two of the scholarships are $10,000 payable over the course of four years, one is $8,000 payable over the course of four years, and one book award is $500 renewable for four years.

  • Emergency financial assistance: CAP students are eligible for emergency financial assistance once they have completed their first year of college. This aid is reserved for students who have exhausted all available funding options but still have a tuition gap, need funds for textbooks, or need to cover transportation costs. The staff completes an emergency funding request that is reviewed by a four-person committee that approves or denies the request.

I contacted the BPEF’s executive director, Faith Villegas, to get her thoughts about other aspects of the program. What follows is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity with her responses and insights. 

When did you decide to add success services, and how did they develop? 

BPEF staff would reach out to the former MAACS students who were attending college to discover that some dropped out. This was primarily due to financial challenges. Upon hearing this, we formed a committee to brainstorm ways to ensure that MAACS-mentored students who were attending college were able to persist through and graduate. 

What are the challenges you experience (or experienced) in getting this work off the ground?

The greatest challenge is securing student buy-in. Although we mentored the students in high school, and they received college readiness workshops, it was still difficult to engage students without an incentive. Initially, we asked students to submit their schedules and grades to receive feedback and guidance from staff. Many failed to submit the required documentation. By 2007, we revised the program to include a financial incentive. We offered $100 stipends every semester for submitting their grades and schedules. This programmatic change has shown the greatest benefit in keeping the students engaged.

Another challenge is getting 100 percent of our eligible seniors to complete the college readiness workshops and enroll in success programming. The workshops are scheduled during spring break, which presents a challenge for student attendance. The students and their families often had other commitments, so moving forward, the college readiness workshops will be held in May. 

Which aspects of what you do are replicated from other programs, and which aspects of what you do would be replicable for other programs? 

Our partnership with the school district is paramount to providing services and fulfilling our mission. Any program seeking to replicate this work needs a partnership or memorandum of understanding with the targeted school district. This is the first step to implementing programming within the schools. The district provides office space, student class schedules, and basic resources in each high school. Additionally, each high school includes BPEF staff in meetings, FAFSA information nights, back-to-school and open house nights, and report card nights. School staff identify students who need the MAACS program. 

MAACS uses an evidence-based peer-to-peer mentoring model. It requires the pairing of a young adult/college student with a high school student for one-on-one sessions. Mentor/mentee matches are formed, monitored, and supported by a site supervisor at each high school. 

What are the key indicators you track for your success services? Which of NCAN’s Success Common Measures do you track? What are the challenges around tracking them? What do you wish you could track that either you cannot procure or that presents a bad cost/benefit for obtaining?

BPEF tracks demographic, enrollment, academic, persistence, and financial aid indicators for our success services. Knowing that MAACS students have been accepted into a postsecondary institution is the first step. Before our seniors graduate high school, we collect acceptance letters and assist students with finalizing their choice and making enrollment deposits.

Once CAP students enroll in postsecondary institutions, they are required to submit a copy of their schedule as proof of registration to receive their first semester stipend. The schedules inform us if the student is attending college on a full- or part-time basis. This process allows us to gather persistence data and help guide students toward completion. 

We maintain individual student folders and Excel spreadsheets of each high school graduating class. We use individual student folders to update records, track progress, write meeting notes, and file all paperwork and forms for the respective student. Although time-consuming, the student folders and Excel spreadsheets are the initial data systems that we use to track our students. Our subscription to the National Student Clearinghouse is also important for tracking the outcomes of students.

Prior to the establishment of CAP in 2003, the proliferation of social media, and subscribing to the National Student Clearinghouse in 2012, BPEF had difficulty tracking the success outcomes of MAACS students. After expanding programming and best practices, we are able to track any MAACS student regardless of their enrollment in CAP. We submit information for all students to the National Student Clearinghouse on an annual basis to verify if our students are persisting, completing, and/or continuing their education. The NSC and the NCAN Benchmarking Project have provided BPEF with annual outcomes against which we can compare both MAACS and CAP students. 

What are some of the key resources or supports you think the field needs to expand and improve the success services provided to students? (i.e., What can NCAN do at a large scale in terms of professional development and training?)

The key resources needed to expand the work of college and career access are funding and awareness. Although technology has streamlined the college application process, there is still a need for college and career preparation assistance. Many students are inundated with information and do not know how to access and/or navigate the online tools or information. Like Bridgeport, a large number of public schools in America are underfunded and have lost support services and providers such as career and guidance counselors, classroom aides, and paraprofessionals. The loss of these personnel has increased the workload of the remaining staff and programs like MAACS. Creating awareness of the positive impacts of college and career success programs within the general population and governments can assist with the allocation of sustainable funding for these programs. 

How do you balance the demand to provide more access support with the desire to provide more success support? How does that cause organizational shifts in, for example, securing funding, board commitment, and staff training?

The need for access and success supports are demanding yet intertwined. We believe both are important factors for outcomes, therefore we intentionally structure how we devote time and resources to them. College access supports are the primary focus of BPEF throughout the high school academic year. The access work centers on creating awareness, building knowledge, and developing actions with the high school population. BPEF staff, along with the mentors, operate three high school sites three days per week and one site two days per week over a 26-week period. The college success supports and staff training are the primary focus of BPEF during the summer and semester breaks. The success work centers on communication and guidance, transcript collection and evaluation, and completion of financial aid applications with our college students through CAP. Social media and email are constant tools of communication with our CAP students. Students submit their documentation, make requests for assistance, and update their contact information through emails and messages. 

How do you cooperate with colleges in supporting students?

BPEF cooperates with colleges in a variety of ways. The presidents and/or deans of the four local colleges surrounding Bridgeport are members of our Board of Directors. Our partnership with the area colleges is key to obtaining great mentors who work with our high school students. Our college partners help us set up recruiting meetings with various professors and departments, identify qualified work-study students, and offer MAACS space during volunteer and job fairs. Campus staff also offer students the opportunity to work as a mentor to fulfill their internship or capstone project.

We promote college tours and information sessions and encourage applications based on student interest. Many of our mentees are attending area colleges because of two factors: they were mentored by someone on that campus, or they are receiving the scholarships now available to Bridgeport students with great academic records. The scholarships offered are a reflection of the work of the Bridgeport Higher Education Alliance (BHEA), of which BPEF has been a charter member since 2004. BHEA members include the college and university presidents, deans of colleges, community-based programs, local nonprofits, and Bridgeport Public School district staff who are working to improve and align the educational pathways for students from the Bridgeport public schools. 

Through CAP, we can cooperate with colleges in a much more targeted fashion. With the inclusion of the financial incentives of CAP, we communicate often with the offices of financial aid, the bursar or billing, and bookstores to discuss and submit payments for students.

How do you provide services to students who attend schools far away from your program’s location? What advice do you have for other programs in serving their own students at a distance?

We use social media, email, and phone calls to engage with our students attending schools outside of Bridgeport. Students often email, call, or send a message through Facebook when they have questions or concerns. Every MAACS and CAP student receives a friend request from our Facebook page. Through this platform, we are able to post information, share and tag photos, and privately message our students. 


Thank you to Faith for her time and responses and to BPEF for its NCAN membership. We will return soon with additional profiles of programs succeeding with college success.

(Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash)