• by Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • September 2006 • Laurie Posner

It was just before 6:30 a.m. on a warm morning in June of last year when 40 teenagers piled out of cars and trucks to gather at a middle school in San Antonio. It had been just two weeks since their last day of school, and this was early in the morning. But they arrived anyway, excited or curious, nervous or hopeful. This would be the beginning of the students’ college tour – a tour that introduced a host of Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program students to a range of post-secondary possibilities.

Building on a Proven Model

IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is an internationally-recognized, dropout prevention program. It works by identifying junior high and high school students who are in at-risk situations and enlisting them as tutors of elementary school youngsters who are also struggling in school. Given this role of personal and academic responsibility, the Valued Youth tutors increase self-discipline and build self-esteem, and schools strengthen a philosophy and practice of valuing students considered at-risk. Results show that tutors stay in school, have improved academic performance, have better school attendance and advance to higher education.

Since its inception in 1984, the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has kept more than 23,000 students in school, young people who were previously considered at risk of dropping out. The lives of more than 416,000 children, families and educators have been positively impacted by the program.

The program design is based on IDRA research on why students leave school, which dropout prevention strategies work, and how school holding power – building school capacity to hold onto all students until graduation – makes a difference. The program has grown across the United States and is presently in 16 cities in Brazil.

Preventing Dropping Out, Promoting College and Career Options

The IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is well known as a dropout prevention program, but it also provides an opportunity for students to consider various careers and college options. College tours are at the heart of this exploration, not only giving students a view of academic options but also linking their success in school now to expectations about and opportunities for the future.

In its recent report Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some Schools Accelerate Learning, the Education Trust found, “High impact schools [those schools that are most effective at helping students who enter high school significantly behind their peers to achieve substantial academic growth] are clearly focused on preparing students for life beyond high school – specifically college and careers” (Education Trust, 2005).

Average-impact schools, by contrast, are mainly focused on preparing students for graduation. In “A Research Study to Identify Effective Recruitment Strategies for San Antonio College,” IDRA found that “visiting college campuses while still in high school and their parents’ and families’ encouragement” were mentioned most often as helping students prepare for college (Cortez and Cortez, 2003).

Through local college tours with the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, schools introduced a direct, tangible link between high school graduation and post-secondary options. This demonstrated in words and actions that graduation and college planning is part of the vision for every student.

For most students who participated in the June 2005 college tours the field trip was a first visit to a college campus, a first opportunity to consider multiple college options, and a chance to ask detailed questions about academics and college life.

Students, teachers and university administrators were actively engaged. One senior had already been accepted to Texas A&M University, but she had never set foot on this or any other campus. A Texas A&M financial aid officer at the University of Texas Health Science Center, who specialized in recruiting first generation students, both met with students and had them dissect do a science experiment during their visit.

One of the teachers from the middle school campus attended the field trip to give the students a tour of his alma mater.

On Board: College Tours and Preparation Make a Difference

In an economy in which 20 of the fastest growing occupations require a bachelor’s degree just to get in the door, an alarmingly low number of Hispanic students (11 percent) graduate with a bachelor’s degree. This is compared to about 30 percent of White students and 17 percent of African American students (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

Regarding income, the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that people who receive a bachelor’s degree rather than only a high school degree earn 75 percent more in lifetime earnings. Beyond economic imperatives, few dispute the value of college participation as a bridge to personal opportunity and lifetime learning and a cornerstone of civic health.

College participation, however, remains out of reach for thousands of youth who have been implicitly and explicitly told that they are not “college material,” who have been poorly informed or uninformed of their college options and how they can cover the costs, and who have been inadequately prepared to apply with skill and confidence.

Research does not suggest that college tours and planning alone can close the gaps. But the “rubber meets the road” in valuing students when adults in their lives take concrete actions to introduce students to potential schools and help them complete tests, find funds, apply and prepare.

In Latinos in Higher Education: Today and Tomorrow, Brown, et al., emphasize that because many Latino students in higher education today are first-generation college-goers, they often must rely on formal sources of information in preparing for and participating in higher education. They note that “what we encounter at a familial level is an information gap, not a value gap” and stress that making a difference does not merely mean making information available and translating it into Spanish, but “concerted outreach…early in the student’s educational career and continually thereafter.”

IDRA’s research findings and policy recommendations have similarly emphasized the need to adopt a pre-kindergarten through grade 20 point-of-view that expects and supports student transitions from early childhood to college entry and success. Providing information on colleges and universities, admissions, financial aid, concurrent enrollment, scholarships and employment opportunities to students and their families, beginning in middle school, figures prominently in policy solutions developed through IDRA’s InterAction initiative funded by Houston Endowment (IDRA, 2005).

Based on a cross-case analysis of six successful, demographically diverse high schools, Camblin, et al., recommend that among other indispensable strategies, schools with a commitment to increasing college participation by underserved students must expand their focus from a high school diploma to post-secondary opportunities, make clear that adults are real role models and guides in believing in students and “talk about college to every student…in every classroom.” (2003)

Research by Horn and Chen on student resiliency has affirmed that participating in a college preparation activity, such as learning about financial aid and getting help with applications and entrance exams, increases the odds of student enrollment in post-secondary education.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tour offered such preparation to dozens of participating students. Lucy, a 14-year-old at a San Antonio middle school, is thinking about becoming a child psychologist or photographer when she graduates. Since Lucy became a tutor in the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, she has “focused on keeping her grades up.” A field trip to the University of Texas at Austin sparked her interest in attending that school.

Another student summarized: “No matter how hard school gets, finish it. Go as far as you can, and do as much as you can in school.”

While en route, many students personalized their visit logs with drawings and notes. One student filled the back cover of her booklet with the message, “I am college material.”

Resources for College Readiness

Combining 10 tips (see box on Page 10) for successful tours with local commitment and innovation can introduce college options to many more students around the country.

In Texas, the recent passage of the high school allotment (House Bill 1, section 42.2516(b)) offers a new source of funding for Texas school districts to improve student graduation rates and college readiness. HB1 provides to districts $275 per student in average daily attendance in grades nine through 12. The first payment is to reach schools in September 2006. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program and college tours are eligible to be funded through the high school allotment, an excellent way to bring these models to your district or campus this year.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program is approved by the Texas State Board of Education as an innovative course, and the Texas Education Agency lists the program as an approved innovative course on its web site. The course provides ½ credit per semester for a total of one credit. To find out how, contact Dr. Linda Cantú, program coordinator at IDRA (210-444-1710 or feedback@idra.org).

Ten Tips for Top-Notch College Tours

#1: Feature a full range of institutions on your tour, from community colleges to four-year universities. Visit a mix of campus types: colleges and universities that are large and small, that offer various academic programs and majors, that have different demographics, and that are in a range of locations. Go beyond “one shot” tours so that students have the chance to gain confidence in asking questions and draw comparisons among schools.

#2: Promote student leadership, inviting students’ input on what topics to address on the tour.

#3: Prepare “starter-questions” with students to help them identify what they want to know most and frame their visits.

#4: Create a college tour visit log that students can use to record information and impressions.

#5: Include full teacher participation on the tour itself and in follow-up conversations with students about their impressions and any new questions.

#6: Set appointments in advance with admissions and financial aid personnel and college recruiters so that students can ask direct questions of campus administrators. Work with college administrators to find creative ways to introduce visiting students to a given campus’ programs, culture and academic life. Engage first-generation college students in meeting with students.

#7: Invite full student participation, advertising the college tour through fliers, over the school intercom, through in-class announcements and by word of mouth. Encourage students, irrespective of GPA, to participate.

#8: Start college tours early. Middle school is not too soon.

#9: Expect and overcome reluctance, both from teachers and students, who may have lowered expectations or the false impression that some students are inherently not “college material.”

#10: Make college tours a top priority. Even if resources are scarce, promote a college tour as one of the most significant field trips students can take.

Source: Intercultural Development Research Association


Brown, S., and D. Santiago, E. Lopez. “Latinos in Higher Education Today and Tomorrow,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (March-April 2003).

Camblin, S., and Y. Gullatt, S. Klopott. Strategies for Success: Six Stories of Increasing College Access (Boston, Mass.: Pathways to College Network Clearinghouse, 2003).

Cortez, J.D., and A. Cortez. “A Research Study to Identify Effective Recruitment Strategies for San Antonio College,” IDRA report (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, July 2003).

Education Trust. Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some High Schools Accelerate Learning for Struggling Students (Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, November 2005).

Education Trust. “Ticket to Nowhere: The Gap Between Leaving High School and Entering College and High Performance Jobs,” Thinking K-16 (Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust, 1999) Vol. 3, Issue 2.

Horn, L., and X. Chen. Toward Resiliency: At Risk Students Who Make It to College (Berkeley, Calif.: MPR Associates, Inc., 1998).

Intercultural Development Research Association. InterAction – The Initiative: A Call to Action (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA, 2005).

U.S. Census Bureau. Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, June 2004).

Laurie Posner, MPA, is a special assistant to the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]