Q&A With Steve Colón, New CEO of Bottom Line: 'I see myself in the students we serve.'

November 19, 2018

By Lindsay Broderick, Staff Writer

In September, Steve Colón became the new CEO of NCAN member Bottom Line. Mr. Colón has dedicated his professional career to increasing college access for traditionally underserved students. He spent 12 years at the College Board, leading strategic, analytic, and operational teams for large national programs such as Advanced Placement (AP), SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, and BigFuture.org. After his time at the College Board, Mr. Colón served as the senior vice president of organization-wide learning and strategy for Teach for America (TFA).

Mr. Colón also serves as the treasurer of NCAN’s board of directors.

I reached out to Mr. Colón to talk about his new role at Bottom Line, his hopes for the future of the organization, and overall joys of working in the college access field. Mr. Colón provided the following responses to my questions via email.

What made you apply to Bottom Line?

The thing that most drew me to Bottom Line was its long history of achieving impact. With a historical college graduation rate of 78 percent and an ongoing cycle of rigorous evaluation, it was obvious that Dave Borgal (our founder) and Greg Johnson built an organization that is relentlessly committed to improving outcomes for first-generation students from low-income backgrounds. Bottom Line has also consistently been on the leading edge of our field. Not only have we focused on both Access and Success since our founding in 1997, but we’ve also been a leader in the affordability conversation for over 20 years. For example, 85 percent of the students we served in 2017-2018 are on track to graduate college with less than $31,500 of debt.

Additionally, Bottom Line has also been at the forefront of the career readiness and support movement. As a critical component in our Success programming, our career-support efforts have resulted in 75 percent of our last two classes of graduates having full-time employment or being enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation. While we are proud of this number, we are stepping it up with career support and are committed to increasing the percentage of students who land a high-quality first destination that will set them up for future success.

What are some goals you’ve set for yourself and Bottom Line?

Bottom Line has demonstrated an ability to scale a solution while maintaining best-in-field outcomes. Researchers Andrew Barr (Texas A&M) and Ben Castleman (UVA) are currently tracking the results of two groups of students from the 2015 and 2016 graduating classes. They are finding: "The Bottom Line model of advising students during high school and into college, combined with explicit guidance to students about applying to and attending institutions where they are likely to be successful without incurring substantial costs, leads to large effects on college enrollment and four-year college enrollment." Their back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that if the Bottom Line model were adopted broadly, it would cut the four-year college enrollment gap for students from low-income backgrounds in half. So, while my priority is to preserve what makes this organization great, I am motivated by the knowledge that we’re currently only serving a fraction of the students who could benefit from our programming. I deeply believe that it is our moral obligation to pursue ambitious strategies to reach as many first-generation students from low-income backgrounds as possible.

Based on your professional and personal experiences, what advice do you have for other college access providers?

While it is both valuable and cost-effective to use student case studies and anecdotes as evidence of your results, every organization owes it to the students they serve to also put real resources into quantifying the outcomes and impact of their programming. Additionally, if activities or milestones are important to your approach (or if you spend time or money on them), then they too should be measured, tracked, and evaluated. For me, proper measures are generally:

  • Objective.
  • Related to the most important aspects of the work and its results.
  • Closely linked to the underlying change we are trying to drive – that is, logically connected to our theory of change.
  • Not unduly expensive (in time, effort, and direct expenditures) to track, capture, record, keep and analyze.
  • Observable within a reasonable time horizon.
  • Not too numerous.

How has your personal experience as a first-generation student influenced your career path and other professional decisions?

I see myself in the students we serve. My parents migrated from Puerto Rico when they were young, and only one of them was able to graduate from high school. They supported my pursuit of higher education, but didn’t know what it would take – academically, financially, or socially – to get in or through a postsecondary institution. What I needed most – and what has driven my career – are relationships with consistent, caring, and knowledgeable individuals who I could trust to help me make informed choices. As such, I’ve spent most of my adult life at organizations (like College Board, Teach For America, and now Bottom Line) who genuinely believe that these types of relationships are essential to helping students like me not only make informed decisions about college but also graduate and find success.

What is your favorite part about working in the college access field?

One of my favorite things about working in our field is the shared commitment to the belief that a college education is the most direct path to real social mobility. While this is generally true across all organizations and roles, it is brought to life by the dedication and hard work of those who work most directly with students. Frankly, I’m inspired daily by the work of Bottom Line’s Access and Successadvisors, many of whom are recent graduates themselves and come from similar backgrounds as our students. It is in their ability to build a consistent, caring, knowledgeable, and trusted relationship that success is born. So advisors are not only the lifeblood of our organization but also of the larger access and success field. They are my favorite part!

How has the transition from Teach For America to Bottom Line been for you so far?

I’m not sure that I ever truly understood what being a leader required of me until my time at Teach For America (TFA). They are the quintessential leadership development organization, and I feel grateful for having spent a portion of my career with them. What I learned at TFA has helped make this change more comfortable than I would have initially thought. And honestly, while all transitions come with challenges, joining Bottom Line feels a bit like coming home.

Congratulations to Mr. Colón on his new position, and thank you to Bottom Line for its NCAN membership!

Tweet: Dynamic Duo Helps Detroit Students Get Degrees: https://ctt.ac/rz405+ via @collegeaccess

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