Options Shines on the National Stage

It’s been a big year for the Options Center, which has been recognized as a national leader in breaking down barriers to college—and the year ahead is set to be even bigger.

It’s been a big year for the Options Center, which has been recognized as a national leader in breaking down barriers to collegeÑand the year ahead is set to be even bigger.

This fall, Options was honored as the 2018 College Access Organization of Excellence by the National College Access Network. In its announcement, NCAN highlighted Options’ “many impactful partnerships” and the “effectiveness of its approach.”

“We see this as an affirmation that Options is a national leader in college access and sets a high standard for itself and others,” said Goddard Riverside Executive Director Rod Jones. “We’re all proud of what Options accomplishes every day.”

The Options Center works with some 1,000 high school and college students per year, many of them first-generation and low-income. It helps them apply to college and supports them through their journey to a degree. Last year it began exploring ways to help students connect with employment when they graduate.

In 2005, the Options Institute launched to share Options’ successful model with other organizations. One of its biggest customers has been the New York City Department of Education, which has sent thousands of counselors through its programs. As of 2016, at least 75 percent of city high schools had an Options-trained staff member. The Institute has also taught classes in places as far-flung as Chicago and Puerto Rico.

Besides helping students overcome barriers to education, Options is taking aim at the barriers themselves. It partnered with Young Invincibles —an organization representing millennials —in 2015 to form #DegreesNYC. This collaboration is bringing together educators, community-based organizations, funders, researchers, officials, and young people across the city to smooth the path to college for students from all backgrounds.

In early 2019 #DegreesNYC will release its Blueprint for Collective Action on Postsecondary Access and Success in New York City. “The Blueprint summarizes the findings from hundreds of hours of research and discussions carried out over the last two years by #DegreesNYC members,” said Options Center Director Judith Lorimer. “Currently, citywide, 57 percent of white adults have a bachelor’s degree compared to 22 percent of their black and 16 percent of their Hispanic counterparts. We see the Blueprint as a starting point for changing the system in New York City to close that gap.”

Major funders are buying into the vision. In November 2018 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $200,000 to support #DegreesNYC. The Kresge Foundation gave $100,000 the year before.

While Options has its sights set high, it never loses its focus on individual students. On a recent Friday afternoon, college students on winter break gathered in the program’s downstairs meeting room to decorate gingerbread houses and chat. Upstairs, in a bright and sunny office decorated with college pennants, SUNY New Paltz freshman Crystal Toledano met with counselor Gustavo Aguilar.

Like the majority of young people in the program, Toledano is a first-generation student. She grew up mostly in the Dominican Republic, moving to Harlem in 2010.

“I’ve recommended this program to so many people,” said Toledano. “When I needed help with my financial aid forms and college applications, they had my back.

“I consider Options my second family.”