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September 2007
Volume 2, Number 9

College Is Possible:
Precollege Youth Development Program

Rachel S. Ruiz and Sheryl Anderson

In an effort to promote access to higher education to diverse, underserved youth in Clark County, Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, adopted the College Is Possible (CIP) program in 2004. The American Council on Education (ACE) developed this youth development program to serve as a bridge between colleges and universities and their local K-12 and nonprofit youth communities. The Center for the Advancement of Race and Ethnic Equity (CAREE), a division of ACE, provides national resources and training opportunities for college presidents and liaisons. Clark College is one of 47 participating institutions nationwide, of which only four are two-year public colleges.

From the establishment of Clark College in 1933 until 2004, Clark College had no recognized youth development program. Clark College is located in the southwestern part of the state of Washington, which has a historically underserved population with limited access to higher education. It took over a year for community members to understand and embrace the idea of a precollege youth development program. Since there had been no previous program, there lacked a basic understanding of the benefits of a comprehensive program for youth. There was great skepticism until the first group, the Native American Indian Title VII, began to participate. Soon after the Native American Indian group started activities, other groups began to accept the invitation to become part of the program. The College Is Possible program is a true educational pioneer in the region.

The goals of CIP are focused on the academic and personal development of precollege students and on serving a resource for support and guidance to parents, educators, and community supporters in advancing these efforts. Unlike many other youth development programs, CIP recognizes the valuable support offered by family members and extends its program to provide information and inclusive educational activities. An added and unanticipated impact of the CIP program is the positive effect it has had on the parents who attend with their children. As new learning opportunities were introduced to their children, the parents started to show interest in coming to college to better their families’ lives. For the first time, Clark College now offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for CIP parents at local elementary and high schools on an ongoing basis, promoting higher education to all family members.

Clark College currently hosts five CIP groups and has provided an array of educational learning activities to youth and their families. Clark College admissions staff and a variety of community partners, including nonprofit groups and K-12 systems, facilitate the groups. All activities are strategically planned to support the cultural values and customs of the group. By customizing the delivery of activities, we respect and celebrate the differences of each group.

It is difficult to create a generic profile of CIP participants but there are several common factors. Clark College and CIP are committed to serving youth who are low income and live with families who have no experience with higher education. Most of the groups have strong parent participation, but there continue to be economic and social barriers for some family members. Typically, events and learning sessions are scheduled for four times per academic year for each group.

Program Participants. The Native American Indian Group serves families from three local school districts and partners with the Title VII program. This is a family-based group with youth of multiple ages. Parents are actively engaged and attend each event, including those held on the Clark College campus.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) serves a school-based group of families from the Vancouver School District. This group is age specific and consists of a predetermined cohort of diverse and underserved students at two middle schools. This six-year, state-grant-funded program is designed to follow this cohort through high school graduation. The students are transitioning to the ninth grade this fall and will be attending two local high schools.

The Sara J. Anderson Elementary Latino Family serves families whose children are students in a selected fourth-grade classroom. Sara J. Anderson Elementary school is the local Spanish immersion school and serves a high percentage of Latino families. This group’s membership changes each year as students move to the next grade. Because of the 100 percent Latino participation, all sessions are held in Spanish, with English interpretation provided. The adult family members in this group have also benefited from exposure to higher education, specifically information about the ESL program to be offered at the elementary school in fall 2007.

The Rise and Stars Community Center serves youth living at Vancouver Housing Authority facilities. This is a multiethnic and multiaged group that lives in a common low-income housing area. The community center serves this resident population, providing after-school care, homework assistance, and other programming. Family members are less involved with this group. However, community center staff members have benefited from CIP resources and activities.

The Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Washington serves youth enrolled at the Boys and Girls Club. This is a multiethnic group, with most members being middle-school age. This group has strong community support and leadership and serves a broad range of youth. Learning activities will be increasing during the 2007-2008 academic year, with a variety of youth activities tied to career exploration.

Current Educational Levels in Clark County. Most underserved communities are restricted in their economic opportunities because of limited levels of education. Clark County’s Profile of Selected Social Characteristics: 2000 indicates that approximately 40 percent of its population has a high school diploma or less. The more education citizens have, the more income they will make over their lifetime as demonstrated in the table below.

rate in 2006

Education attained

Median weekly
earnings in 2006


Doctoral degree



Professional degree



Master’s degree



Bachelor’s degree



Associate’s degree



Some college, no degree



High-school graduate



Less than a high school diploma


Note: Data are 2006 annual averages for persons age 25 and over. Earnings are
for full-time wage and salary workers. Source: U.S. Department of Labor.

Advisory Committee. Clark College has recently formed a College Is Possible Advisory Committee of community members who will focus on improving both the access to and the quality of the CIP program. The committee will meet for the first time this fall and is comprised of community members with a commitment to youth development.

Program Activities. Program activities vary by group, but all groups share the goal of introducing the educational opportunities offered at the higher education level and encouraging the personal and academic development of the participants. Group members help direct the activities by determining the areas of interest, and Clark College’s group facilitators plan and coordinate activities on the college campus and at other community locations.

The educational activities include demonstrations, hands-on activities, and educational tours of academic and professional-technical program areas. The activities are designed to be interactive and accessible. Past and future areas of interest and activities include

  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) topics
  • Professional-Technical Careers (Machining, Welding, Graphic Design, Computer Technology, Culinary)
  • Science Day Camp
  • Astronomy Star Parties
  • Ceramics and Art

Cultural and personal development activities also play a role in the success of CIP. Clark College hosted a Native American Indian PowWow in 2006, parent information sessions on educational opportunities, and thematic movie nights that focus on self-empowerment.

Clark College has encouraged campus-based activities, but reliable and affordable transportation is an issue for many of the families. For this reason, some of the groups’ program activities are held at neighborhood schools or community centers. All of these activities are held in the early evening, allowing family members to participate. Clark College occasionally contracts with college faculty in the areas of interest and their expert contributions are highly valued by the groups.

Important Lessons Learned

  • Always include the family members whenever possible. Many times, meaningful understanding and acceptance of new ideas starts within the family.
  • Do not underestimate the barriers of limited transportation and financial resources for your groups. Investigate using your local school district transportation service to provide Family Field Trip transportation to an activity.
  • Always include a substantial nutritional mini-meal before and after an event. Undernourishment is a real barrier to the success of a program.
  • Don’t be afraid to mix age groups. We have found that groups with mixed ages and generations are the most fun and productive.
  • Don’t be afraid to customize the delivery of the message to suit the communication and learning style of the group. There is no one-size-fits-all message, and as you work with each group you will be able to reach the groups more effectively.
  • Offer resources in the form of staff training and consumable supplies to local K-12 and nonprofit youth agencies whenever possible. Most youth leaders will welcome you with open arms!
  • Establish an advisory committee made up of key community members committed to youth development. This group can give you recognition within your community and allow you to pursue various grants at the local level and beyond.

In conclusion, the College Is Possible program at Clark College provides unique opportunities for precollege youth from diverse and underrepresented groups to experience higher educational opportunities. This ongoing learning program provides educational, social and cultural programs designed to meet the current needs of youth, and encourages emerging college students for the future.

Rachel Ruiz is Vice President of Student Affairs and Sheryl Anderson is Director of Admissions for Clark College.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor