Diversity and Democracy

The Civic Opportunity Initiative Network

Access to higher education remains essential for social mobility. Awareness of this reality has spurred public interest in increasing college graduation rates. And yet, lower-income youth continue to face seemingly insurmountable barriers on their pathways to higher education, from struggling public schools to rising higher education costs.

Strengthening the educational pipeline for these students will be critical as the proportion of traditionally underserved students grows along with the need for a highly skilled and educated workforce. But education is necessary for more than improving socioeconomic mobility and meeting workforce demands: it is also an important avenue toward the engaged citizenship an effective democracy needs.

Over recent decades, a movement to enhance the role of higher education institutions in engaging their communities has evolved and expanded. The movement has inspired some practitioners to ask: What kinds of programs can enhance students' access to and success within higher education, while also encouraging and nurturing students' civic engagement? How can such programs achieve impact at a sufficiently large scale?

The COIN Model

Launched in 2008 as a program of the New World Foundation, the Civic Opportunity Initiative Network (COIN) has been grappling with these questions through an approach that promotes civic participation while addressing the myriad academic and financial barriers to college access and success. COIN's design rests on several distinct pillars, including access to higher education, mentoring relationships, a focus on community development, and a view of education as a commitment of citizenship (see sidebar). A network of community-based organizations, high school/college students, institutions of higher education, and private foundations provides support for these pillars.

Consulting firm Marga Incorporated assisted the New World Foundation in designing COIN and building its initial network, beginning with six community-based organizations drawn from the foundation's grantee base. These organizations—selected through a competitive process and rooted in communities in California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia—demonstrated a commitment to youth development in their localities and the capacity to provide guidance, tutoring, and essential support systems for interns. Each organization extended these supports to a cluster of high school juniors, collectively involving thirty-two student interns in the program's initial cohort.

Through institutional and philanthropic funding, the original COIN scholars eventually gained tuition-free access to one of twenty-two participating colleges and universities. Now college sophomores, these scholars continue to participate in community-based internships and benefit from a number of services provided through the program, such as coaching and leadership development training. Ultimately, COIN aims to create a new cadre of local leaders with college degrees—active citizens committed to strengthening their communities of origin and other communities throughout the nation and globe.

Pillars of the COIN Model

The Civic Opportunities Initiative Network rests on several distinct pillars:

  • Guaranteed Access to Higher Education: COIN participants attend institutions of higher education free of charge, with support from philanthropic and institutional scholarship financing.
  • A One-to-One Student-to-Adult Ratio: COIN participants receive coaching, guidance, and academic support throughout their experiences in the program.
  • Community Development: Community-based organizations receive interns, and student participants prepare to contribute to strengthening their communities.
  • A School Reform Model: COIN's school reform model promotes service as active citizenship and education as a commitment of citizenship.

—David J. Maurrasse

Higher Education Connections

Part of COIN's challenge is to recreate opportunities traditionally available primarily in schools serving higher income communities (including civic education activities, opportunities for social emotional learning, mentoring provided by committed adults, professional work experiences, and access to four-year colleges and universities). Achieving these ends requires the cooperation of various participants in the network, especially institutions of higher education.

COIN's initial cohort of high school students entered undergraduate programs at colleges and universities spanning the spectrum of types of higher education institutions. Participating colleges and universities included institutions in the University of California system, Jackson State University, Penn State University, Manhattanville College, Mary Baldwin College, and George Mason University. These institutions have provided COIN scholars with different modes of support and enabled their participation in various dimensions of COIN programming.

Participants in the initial cohort have generally succeeded in their coursework and persisted in their undergraduate educations. Eighty-one percent of COIN scholars who entered the pilot program as high school juniors are still involved as college sophomores, and over 46 percent of these students have earned overall GPAs of 3.0 or above. Participating community-based organizations have increased their capacity and visibility through the program, strengthening youth outreach and developing longer-term outlooks on community engagement through COIN scholars' involvement.

An Expanding Scope

COIN is currently increasing its scale by widening its network, initiating new summer service opportunities, and inspiring new programs that promote service as a way of leveling the academic playing field. More than 1,200 students beyond the original cohort have been served by COIN's additional programming, just a few examples of which appear below.

New partnerships are one component driving the COIN model's expansion. Under the advisement of the New World Foundation and drawing on lessons learned from COIN, the Posse Foundation has created Civic Engagement Posses, through which clusters of students at Bucknell University and Mount Holyoke College, as well as students connected to Posse's Miami office, participate in social justice and civic training. Public Allies is building a pipeline for COIN scholars and others toward leadership in nonprofit organizations and community organizing. The Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing has also adopted the COIN model, which it will implement in seventeen states as part of its Regenerations: Leadership Pipeline project to develop leadership among young people of color.

In addition to expanding its partnerships, COIN began piloting a Summer Service Corps in 2011, providing localized summer opportunities in collaboration with New York City's Department of Youth and Community Development, Skidmore College, and the Roosevelt Institute. In just a few years, over one thousand students have participated in the summer program. Through summer service fellowships, low-income students earn stipends to participate in internships in New York City government agencies while receiving leadership and policy training from the Roosevelt Institute. Skidmore College helps select students to participate in the Summer Service Corps and provides ongoing mentorship and civic engagement opportunities.

Another project building on the COIN model is the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, which annually introduces two hundred rising eighth graders, mostly low-income students of color, to the promise of higher education. This five-year pre-college program provides intensive academic support, personal guidance, and mentoring. Currently serving over one thousand students in New Jersey's major urban centers, the program is being expanded to institutions in other states. Like COIN, the program exposes young people to the transformative role of civic leadership in community development by providing training and immersion in the work of community-based organizations.

A Compelling Framework

COIN provides a compelling framework for simultaneously strengthening the education pipeline and promoting civic engagement. This multifaceted effort addresses numerous matters critical to the future of American democracy. COIN leverages higher education's social and financial capital to enhance opportunities for historically disenfranchised young people, to build the capacity of community-based organizations, and to develop leadership potential to transform communities. Going forward, the New World Foundation is investigating new mechanisms that will enable COIN's continued growth. To learn more, visit http://newwf.org/special-projects/civic-opportunities-initiative-network-coin.


David J. Maurrasse is president and founder of Marga Incorporated.

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