How Nonprofits are Bridging the Gap Between High School and College

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Young students today face significant barriers to education and employment success, with so many of those barriers showing up for the first time in the student’s first 12 months in college.

Mollie Waller, Executive Director at Youth Solutions, joins the podcast to discuss their Jobs of Michigan’s Graduates (JMG) program and its successful high-touch student mentorship model that truly makes an impact on retention and graduation rates.

Gauging college readiness

How prepared is the typical high school senior? Are they ready to commit to a major life decision about college and a career? 

Mollie’s team at Youth Solutions begins working with children in middle school “to introduce them to a range of careers, a range of industries, and help them match their skill sets and their interests with available job opportunities.”

She believes these vital years of additional preparation give kids a leg up through high school, and confidence to move forward wisely after graduation.

“The freshman year is typically a new time of life, a new environment, new struggles, and unexpected challenges,” Mollie points out, and her organization provides a unique source of support during this crucial period.

Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates

Founded in 1978, Job’s for America’s Graduates is “one of the most successful school-to-work transition programs for at-risk youth in the nation,” Mollie explains. Youth Solution’s flagship program is the Michigan affiliate, but also offers unparalleled individualized assistance not seen in other states. 

They are dedicated to helping those students who have amazing potential but don’t do their best in a traditional high school environment. 

“The ultimate goal is to break that cycle of poverty,” she explains. “Upwards of 50% of the youth that we serve are potential first-generation college students — sometimes it’s as much as 75 or 80%.”

Her experienced staff teaches students how to ask the right questions so they can develop the necessary skills for succeeding in the workplace, such as responsibility, accountability, teamwork, and respect. 

Youth Solutions Select

Mollie is also at the helm of a pilot program devoted to filling the gaps in Michigan schools when it comes to engagement and career development. 

Many schools, especially in more rural regions, don’t have the bandwidth to support these types of programs. Youth Solutions Select is working directly with schools and districts to “embed a culture of career development, incorporating career learning into regular academics.”

By utilizing a project-based methodology, this program helps keep kids excited about learning new life skills and focused on the future. 

Mentorship is what moves the student retention needle

What makes Mollie’s organization truly stand out is the intensity of its model of mentorship.

Her students receive up to 120 hours each year with their individual specialists. That intensity leads to more positive results. Through hands-on, experiential projects and trauma-informed care, pupils learn to overcome barriers and expand their horizons.

During the pandemic, many of Mollie’s young participants faced difficult challenges and losses. Her dedicated team plays a vital role in supporting the local community in their time of need. 

“Oftentimes, the students come back to visit their specialist after the 12 months, and stay in touch and be connected with them for life,” she says happily. Alumni also regularly recommend the program to their siblings and younger friends.

Successful transition from high school to college and career

Mollie knows that young people need more structure to help guide them after high school graduation. It can be very confusing and difficult to adapt to new circumstances and expectations. 

“We focus a lot on the social-emotional learning, to help them understand how to address these new stressors during this new phase of life,” she states.

With its growing menu of diverse programs, Youth Solutions is building bridges and partnering with other groups to help as many students as possible achieve their dreams, with 90%+ high school graduation rates, and 85% going on to either college, direct to employability with a trade school to get a credential, or to the military.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Mollie Waller, Executive Director at Youth Solutions. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.
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