How Schools Can Help Graduates Achieve their Definition of Post-Grad Success

The national high school graduation rate hit a record high in 2012-13 at 81 percent. However, it wasn’t a positive outlook in families with the lowest designated income levels. Approximately 11 percent of low income students drop out of high school, severely impacting their chances for a successful future.

For low income students who do graduate high school and get accepted into college, their paths to success may be more accessible but they still come with certain challenges.

Across the country, one out of three students are first-generation college students.

“Going to college is already difficult enough, but you can imagine the level of difficulty a child might face if they don’t have a parent or family member who has gone to college before them,” said Tanya Barton, Milton Hershey School Senior Director of Graduate Programs for Success. “Making sure we’re providing proactive support [to these students] is very important.”

To shed light on strategies schools can use to guide students post-graduation, Barton explains how Milton Hershey School administrators created the Graduate Programs for Success (GPS) Division  in order to provide necessary support for MHS alumni who are entering college, technical programs, the workforce or the military.

Helping Students Consider the Bigger Picture

Before students graduate high school, career counselors and teachers should work together to help students hone their strengths, understand their weaknesses, and start deciding what they want to do with their future selves.

When the day comes for students to graduate and begin pursuing the goals they set for themselves, a program like GPS can help them navigate their next step. By connecting career counselors who mentored students throughout their undergraduate careers with transition specialists who will guide them post-graduation, schools can begin to catch any early warning indicators that might be present for students. These indicators, whether emotional, cultural or social, are what the GPS Division  uses to develop individualized support services for MHS alumni.

“For Milton Hershey School students, especially those who have gone here for a long period of time, this is their home and their family,” said Barton. “Putting them out into the real world to establish new relationships and find new adults who are going to be supportive is essential to their success.”

As students make decisions and consider the bigger picture, the GPS Division serves as a consistent source of support when students need resources or simply someone to listen.

Supporting Mixed Emotions

Oftentimes, low income students may re-evaluate or second-guess their post-graduation plans once they experience culture shock and the realization that they have actually graduated high school. It’s important for them to turn to someone if they don’t have family support at home or structure within their friend groups.

“The idea of persistence is extremely important. It’s getting from year one, to year two, to year three,” explained Barton. “We felt we needed to invest the actual time, the resources and the manpower to provide [this kind] of transition support.”

Through summer bridge programs with universities and in-depth orientation programs, most students are able to overcome their nerves and continue forward. Transition specialists or career counselors can partner with colleges and universities, and help ease students through the next steps by providing guidance about job interviews, transportation to orientation, scholarships and organizational tools.

Providing Targeted Support and New Forms of Communication

As students start taking their next steps, the GPS Division focuses on increasing communication and building supportive relationships. Transition specialists can visit students after their college orientation to discuss the first few days on campus and help them find necessary resources. Communicating with the millennial generation in appealing ways is also a significant step in the process. Reaching out by phone or email may not be as successful as texting applications or smartphones and utilizing social media platforms.

Most importantly, schools also can consider leveraging connections with older alumni—for example, transition specialists may connect a recent graduate entering the workforce with an older alum who is hiring. Supporting graduates starts with teaching them to advocate for themselves as they build relationships.

“Our job is to help them navigate their new world. We have to teach them to be persistent and proactive,” said Barton. “They may feel hesitant about asking for help or looking for answers, but [we need to teach them] that it’s their right to do that.”

Along with resources to help build persistence, an interactive website or app they can visit for current information is key to helping students make a smooth transition.

MHS also follows a tiering model to provide more targeted support. For instance, if a student requires additional support academically, transition specialists may communicate more frequently and request additional data about their grades.

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Being There for Every Transition

Every graduate’s path to success is different, which is why transition support systems must be comprehensive and individualized. Staff should celebrate students’ accomplishments at every phase but immediately help them think ahead to the next step.

“We don’t want to only help them transition from MHS to their first year,” Barton said. “Kids change their plans, whether it’s switching their major, transferring schools or joining the military. We need to be there for all those transitions, not just the initial one.”

Devoting just a few hours to assist with making connections between an older and younger alum can make a long-term impact. Giving students information about financing college or getting a car loan are other ways to improve their success and well-being.

“We all define success in different ways—there’s no one-size-fits-all definition,” Barton added. “We want to see our students be able to have a career, a family, be able to support themselves, and ultimately be happy. That’s how we measure success in the GPS Division.”

To implement a support program that ensures graduate success, start with these key takeaways:
  • Hire career counselors and transition specialists to mentor students during high school and after graduation as they develop goals and create plans.
  • Partner with colleges and universities to ease students’ transition and provide answers to common questions.
  • Increase communication with graduates through the use of technology or in-person visits.
  • Leverage connections with older alumni who may have job opportunities that are ideal for graduates.
  • Create a tiering model to provide targeted, individualized support based on graduates’ needs.
  • Offer support throughout every transition in a graduate’s life, not just the initial one.

Tanya Barton is the Senior Director of Graduate Programs for Success. She has worked at Milton Hershey School for 17 years.

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