For the past two years I have gotten to know college access professionals in the Philadelphia area. This is a fairly large community though it is possible to meet many people through the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable. Last week I spent some time talking with staff at Year Up, an organization that manages a year-long program that combines coaching, college classes and paid internship experience to help adults ages 18 to 24 find entry-level positions in business and information technology. Each January and July a cohort of 40 (soon to be as many as 60) students begin a very different kind of education. If successful, they are likely to have a full-time job within a year in information management, information security or information technology. They could be well-paid customer service professionals, programmer/analysts, systems technicians and more.
Year Up operates in 17 communities within 15 metropolitan areas. Its relationships in the Greater Philadelphia area will soon extend into Delaware, sensible given the information security and technology needs of financial services companies in The First State. Each location recruits students and coordinates relationships with a local college and employers who are seeking entry-level talent in business, information security and information technology. The Greater Philadelphia Year Up works with Peirce College, a private school that caters mainly to non-traditional students who work while pursuing their education. Peirce was selected because it offered flexible scheduling–students could work around their class schedules for the first six months of their education–as well as instruction in the programs of interest to participating employers. Peirce also grants Associates, Bachelors and Masters degrees. Most other Year Up partnerships engage community colleges or instructors employed by the non profit itself.
Year Up targets and recruits prospective students who are Pell-eligible. The costs of each student’s education are funded through a combination of the Pell grant as well as the organization’s and/or sponsors resources. Prospective students must be high school or GED graduates between the ages of 18 and 24 who have previously attempted no more than 24 college credits. The internship experience, given that it is credit-bearing, is similar to relationships in a cooperative education program at a four-year college, though it ends after six months. There is a formal agreement between the intern, Year Up and the employer. There are also thorough evaluations of the intern’s performance, as if s/he was a full-time employee on a probationary period.
It would be no surprise to learn that admissions to Year Up could be exceptionally competitive. An opportunity for a free education as well as a chance to prove oneself in the workplace are very powerful attractions, especially for young adults who are not sure if a more commonplace two-year or four-year college degree program is for them. The Greater Philadelphia office receives over 500 applications for each cohort. Competition for seats in a cohort will only increase as the program becomes better known–it is only in its third year–and builds a larger pipeline of employable students and alumni.
There is a huge upside to Year Up. Students are coached and trained to handle responsibilities that employers usually assign to employees who usually have either a four-year college degree and/or full time work experience. Expectations for an intern are likely to be higher than they would be in a relationship with a career center at a four-year college. The hope is that the intern, who receives a monthly stipend instead of a salary and benefits, will be ready to join their firm full-time after their internship has ended. In most relationships with a four-year college, the intern returns to school for at least another year. The pressure on the intern is greater. S/he does not have the opportunity to take on another internship if s/he fails to make a positive impression on the job. However, s/he could be offered a full-time job at a higher wage (usually around $18/hour, or higher) than a recent college graduate with a four-year degree following a very positive evaluation. The reward is more immediate for the risk.
But Year Up has its downsides. While the coaching aspects of the program are intended to provide lifelong workplace skills, the education and internship are targeted towards securing an entry-level position. However, the life span of an education in computer science at the entry level is often very short unless the employer or employee makes the investment in continuing education. In addition, these jobs are was targets for outsourcing. While Year Up is a fine job and workplace training program, it cannot assure job security for its graduates in the years that follow. But the program, on a national level, is positioned to help its alumni.
Nationally, Year Up has been in business for 16 years. It has taken that long for the organization to build up a significant alumni base. To date, over 10,000 students have been served, although many are still completing their program. The size of the base should enable Year Up, with the help of corporate contributions–it grew after a $10 million multi-year commitment from Microsoft in 2007–to offer continuing education on participating campuses or employment sites, online, or through academies that offer certifications. Ideally such education would be employer-paid or funded through the non-profit as opposed to being covered out of the employee’s wallet. The graduates are not Pell eligible as they were when they were students. Alumni relations are also essential for improving the mobility of alumni within their field. An alumnus might have graduated from the program based in Philadelphia, but s/he should be in a position to find employment in Phoenix or Puget Sound. Ideally, s/he should have an inside track if the quality of education and graduates is to a high standard.
I am intrigued by the promise of Year Up as the organization provides more support for its locations as well as students and alumni. It is a very well designed partnership between colleges and their business community to fulfill very specific entry-level needs. Those who are bright, curious about computers, but uncertain about the more traditional college experience may find it to be a very attractive, as well as a more affordable opportunity to gather the skills and experience they need to go into the workplace.