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Destination: College - a College Prep Initiative

Free Library of Philadelphia

Problem Statement

From high drop-out rates to low subject proficiency levels and from financial uncertainty to inadequate support systems, Philadelphia youth face many obstacles. According to a recent report to the Knight Foundation by the Center for Collaborative Learning, of 100 Philadelphia students who start 9th grade, only 52 will graduate high school; 24 will start college; and only 10 will graduate from college! While the American School Counselor Association recommends that each guidance counselor serve 250 students, many Philadelphia counselors can serve in excess of 600 students, and must often deal with a wide range of issues that overshadow basic college guidance. These statistics are alarming but not entirely surprising in a city where the percentage of families living below the poverty level is twice the national rate and the unemployment rate is 12.4%. Particularly when faced with the daunting process of SAT testing, college applications, and financial aid forms, students often find that it is difficult terrain to navigate without assistance. Many Philadelphia teens are the first to go to college in their families, so do not necessarily have the benefit of parental experience with this complicated process.

Over the years, the Free Library’s LEAP After School program has expanded from being a program for elementary school children to include grades one through twelve. Many teens do seek information on colleges and the college application process, but because of the amount of information, resources, and attention that many Philadelphia teens need to navigate this process, the Library has not had resources within LEAP to meet their needs.


Through a Special Services Grant from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), the Free Library began a one year College Preparatory Initiative for at-risk teens in Philadelphia in the fall of 2009. The initiative offers formal programs by college prep professionals and college representatives, as well as individualized support by college student coaches on four related topics—SAT Prep, Selecting a College, Applying to College, and Financing Your College Education— at the Parkway Central Library and four branch locations throughout the city.

Although not an expert in the college application process, through new and expanded partnerships with local organizations including as the Mayor’s Philly Goes 2 College Initiative, the Free Library became an acknowledged stakeholder with the resources and community-based sites to provide services. The Library offered college preparatory services to teens every Saturday from 12 to 5 p.m., including formal workshops, time with a college counselor, informal opportunities with college student coaches, peer study groups, goals tracking via an individualized portfolio component, introduction to the electronic and print resources offered at the Free Library, and computer assistance. Other organizations promoted Destination: College to their youth and provided content specialists to provide workshops. A partnership with area colleges was critical to the success of the program, to recruit work study students as coaches, who walked students through the same college selection and application process they had recently completed themselves.


The primary outcome for Destination: College was to increase the number of Philadelphia students who successfully apply to, attend, and complete an undergraduate degree with the financial support for which they are eligible. Although Destination: College cannot address all of the obstacles facing Philadelphia teens, it has helped level the playing field in the college application process and has given students from low income families—and from schools with proficiency levels far below the average with inadequate support from teachers and counselors—a chance to realize their dreams of attending college.
The Free Library evaluated the success of the initiative employing both qualitative and quantitative methods as they related to project milestones including: increased level of confidence in taking the SAT test, selecting colleges that meet participants’ academic interests and career goals; completing the common application and essay, maintaining a project portfolio, and completing financial aid applications.

The college student coaches tracked attendance at each program and documented milestones completed, such as completion of FAFSA forms or application to college submitted. In addition, surveys distributed at each program and informal interviews assessed baseline data, such as if students had taken an SAT or PSAT and what their scores were, if they were considering applying to college, and the extent of their knowledge about financial aid forms and college applications. Surveys and interviews also gathered post-program data: SAT scores after the SAT Prep program, increase in interest to apply to college, increase in level of knowledge about the college application process and financial aid forms, and whether or not the student has been accepted to college.

By the end of the grant period (May 2010), Destination: College will have provided more than 40 formal programs, serving more than 575 individual participants.  In addition, college student coaches will have offered one-on-one and small group assistance to more than 350 students.  And on May 19, the Free Library will host a Youth Empowerment Summit which will include college information and workshops for more than 300 Philadelphia students.

The Library recently received private funding to continue the Destination: College initiative as part of the 2010-2011 LEAP Program.