The Beyond Graduation project is designed to ease a student’s transition from high school to a local two- or four-year university or technical community college. The transition can be so overwhelming that many young people nationwide abandon their postsecondary goals during the summer months following high school graduation.
“We discovered that a high number of Central Louisiana high school seniors apply to a university or community college, but a large percentage of that number don’t actually enroll in college for the fall semester after they graduate from high school. We are trying to close that gap of students who applied to, but never enrolled, in postsecondary education,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation.
The Rapides Foundation partnered with Career Compass of Louisiana to design and develop the Beyond Graduation project, and it is funded by a grant from the Foundation.
Career Compass of Louisiana, a nonprofit education organization, has a longstanding working relationship with the Foundation. As part of a 2012 grant under the Foundation’s Career and Postsecondary Readiness Initiative, Career Compass already provides postsecondary coaching services to middle school and high school students throughout Central Louisiana. The Beyond Graduation project will extend Career Compass’s coaching services to help high school graduates transition to a two- or four-year university or technical community college.
Beyond Graduation coaches help Central Louisiana students have a positive and successful college experience, and that includes keeping up with required paperwork and deadlines.
Beyond Graduation is a strategy under the Foundation’s efforts to address the high number of young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor pursuing an education. The goal is to prevent young people from disconnecting from the education and workforce pipeline. Beyond Graduation is a retention strategy to keep students in the education pipeline. The Foundation is currently considering grant proposals for the Reconnecting Cenla Program Grant as a reconnection strategy for local young adults. This grant is targeted to build local community systems to reconnect young adults who have dropped out of the education system or workforce to meaningful education and employment opportunities.
“The formative years between ages 16 and 24 are a critical time for young people to develop skills, earn credentials and have experiences that will impact their future,” Rosier said. “Recent research has shown that young adults who experience disconnection have significantly lower incomes, are less likely to be employed, and have poorer health outcomes than their peers.”
Beyond Graduation is being piloted in LaSalle, Natchitoches and Rapides parishes through a partnership with the public school districts, Central Louisiana Technical Community College, Northwestern State University, LSU of Alexandria and Bossier Parish Community College’s Natchitoches campus. A Career Compass coach works at each partner institution, giving students a familiar face in their new surroundings.
The first group of 297 Beyond Graduation students began working with their college coaches in the Spring/Summer of 2022, and they just completed their first semester of college. A second group of graduating high school seniors are currently working with their high school coaches as they map out their postsecondary goals and will begin working with their college Beyond Graduation coaches this spring and summer to assist them with their enrollment processes.
Dr. Chris Maggio, Beyond Graduation Project Manager
"We help them through that important transitional period and we try to break down all the obstacles that are there."
Students apply for the program or are referred by their high school’s Career Compass counselors, teachers or guidance counselors. Priority is given to students who would be the first in their families to attend college. Other factors include family income, grades and the willingness and potential to succeed. Once selected, the student works with the Beyond Graduation coach at the postsecondary institution they plan to attend.
Once students are in the program, the Beyond Graduation coach helps them navigate through the paperwork required after a student is accepted into a college. This includes applying for dorms and meal plans, declaring a major, ordering books, signing up for orientations, registering for classes and submitting the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid.
“There are a lot of steps and obstacles that a high-risk student may decide ‘maybe I’ll just sit out and tackle this later,’ but they never do,” said Dr. Chris Maggio, Beyond Graduation Project Manager. “During the spring and summer, we help make sure that every “I” is dotted and every “T” is crossed. They have a person they can call or text to help them through it. We help them through that important transitional period and we try to break down all the obstacles that are there.”
Beyond Graduation students say they appreciate the personal attention and accountability that they get from their college coaches.
Buckeye High School graduate Logan Foster is in the nursing program at NSU. A first-generation college student who graduated with a high GPA, Logan applied for Beyond Graduation because he saw the benefit of getting extra help for his college experience.
Logan Foster and Coach Sonya Johnson
His Beyond Graduation coach, Sonya Johnson, helped him get academic scholarships, and she encouraged him to get involved in everything NSU has to offer – like clubs, a fraternity and the President’s Leadership program -- as long as it doesn't take away from his studies.
“I’d say Ms. Sonya has been one of the biggest helps and influences in college. Even before school started, in the summer, she was making sure I had all my forms filled out before the deadlines were even set. She made sure I was on top of my game and she held me accountable. I like to refer to her as my NSU mom. She makes me feel like I am always welcome in her office and if I have any questions, she is always there to help,” he said.
“I don’t think I would have become so involved as fast as I did if it wasn’t for her. Talking to her and getting a perspective let me understand it's OK to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to you as long as you manage your time with academics.”
Kaley Whatley, the first in her family to attend college, is a graduate of Jena High School. She became part of Beyond Graduation after deciding she wanted to attend LSUA to major in nursing.
Kaley Whatley and Coach Ashlee Hatwig
Her Beyond Graduation coach, Ashlee Hatwig, helped Kaley fill out the FAFSA, get scholarships and financial aid, register for classes and get into a dorm. Once fall classes started, Hatwig would check in on Kaley to make sure her needs were being met and to remind her of approaching deadlines.
“At LSUA, people are always there to help, but it’s good to know I have one person that I can go to,” Kaley said.
LSUA’s Beyond Graduation students were treated to a “VIP-type” orientation in the summer, before the start of the fall semester. It gave the dozen Beyond Graduation students extra time and more personalized attention to tour the campus and to learn about financial aid, the registration process, student organizations and scholarship opportunities.
“Beyond Graduation has been a big help to me because there is so much that goes on. They are there to help us with anything that we need, especially when you’re 18 years old and just getting out into the world. I’ve been very thankful that I’ve had people like Beyond Graduation to help me along the way,” Kaley said.
Arboni Brown is a Natchitoches Central High School graduate who is in the cosmetology program at Bossier Parish Community College. Arboni has low vision because of a rare medical condition, so it can be difficult for her to read the fine print in textbooks.
Arboni Brown and Coach Kelsy Davis
Her Beyond Graduation coach, Kelsy Davis, helps Arboni with some of her assignments by reading the material aloud to her. Davis also provides the support Arboni needs to tackle her new surroundings as a college student. “I told her I would advocate for her,” Davis said.
Arboni said she enjoys the personalized attention. “She really makes me feel so comfortable, and with my disability, she’s willing to help me whenever I need it.” After she graduates in December 2023, Arboni plans to eventually open her own salon. “I want to work in my own building and make money.”
Early results of the pilot program are encouraging, with the retention rate of Beyond Graduation participants being an estimated 10 percent higher than national benchmarks. The Rapides Foundation plans to expand to all nine school districts in the Foundation’s service area depending on the success of the pilot.
“I wish every student was able to have the extra layer of resources that Beyond Graduation is able to provide,” Maggio said. “We are not only helping students get into college, but we are already seeing where our students are utilizing our services at a very high rate. I can see where these retention services are going to pay dividends down the line.”