He originally came to Connecticut to attend the Coast Guard Academy, and now Chris Soto has returned to New London to launch and direct a program that is brightening the college attendance outlook for dozens of Latinos and other students in the Southeastern Connecticut city.
Higher Edge, the nonprofit endeavor that Soto, a 2003 graduate of the New London service academy started four years ago, has been helping lower income students of all races, as well as those who represent the first generation of their families, to attend college, develop the skills and acquire the resources they need to not only navigate through the college admissions process but also to graduate.
“We are trying to change the thought that college is a dream, to that it is a given for which these students have the talent and ability to succeed.” explained the 35-year-old Soto, a Cuban-American from New Jersey who recently was appointed to the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
Higher Edge has seen 98 percent of its graduates go on to college. Currently, the program has 60 students, mostly Latinos and females, enrolled in higher education. Many are at nearby schools such as the University of Connecticut, Eastern and Southern Connecticut State Universities and Twin Rivers Community College, but several also attend private colleges in Connecticut and out of state.
“We don’t have any graduates yet,” Soto said, but of the six members of the program’s first class, three will be college seniors next year.
Among this group is Livenette Negron who is finishing her junior year at Rochester Institute of Technology and looks forward to graduating with a
degree in industrial design next spring and hopes to go on to graduate school.
Livenette, who was born in Connecticut after her parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, was a junior who was studying drafting at Grasso Tech and wanted to attend college when she first encountered Higher Edge. “I did not know what to do,” she recalled about selecting a college. “I definitely needed financial aid,” Negron added.
The newly established College Access Program, which would evolve into Higher Edge, guided Negron through the college selection and application process, particularly focusing on schools that would offer her the best financial package. “They also helped me apply for scholarships and loans,” she said.
Higher Edge is “very aggressive” in pursuing local scholarships, Soto said. The 36 members of its Class of 2014 received more than $590,000 in financial aid and averaged more than $4,200 in private scholarships, according to the program’s annual report.
Higher Edge draws most its financial support from foundations and grants, individual and business donors, and from partnerships with other nonprofit agencies. It also receives support from the city through the Alliance Funding allocated by the state.
Higher Edge’s offices are in a Hispanic Baptist church on Redden Avenue in New London, and that is where high school students generally go to meet with advisors about once a week. Soto said he wanted them to be in a comfortable environment.
The program’s involvement does not end when its students get to college. “We want to make sure they are connecting with the resources they need,” Soto said. Usually, advisers will continue to meet with students on campus. These meetings are held twice a semester during their first year, once a semester their second year and as needed after that.
One statistic for which Soto is especially proud is that 89 percent of Higher Edge students make it to at least their second year of college. This compares well to national trends which indicate that about one-third of first-year students won’t make it back.
Moreover, Hispanic students generally have had a poor track record of college completion, particularly from community colleges, even though the are entering higher education in record numbers.
By 2012, 69 percent of Hispanic high school graduates went onto college, a rate that was higher than that for white and African-Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. However, researchers also found that only 16 percent of Hispanics have earned a degree by their late 20s as compared to 40 percent of whites.
The numbers for New London high school graduates also underscore why Higher Edge’s work is important to the city. About 38 percent of these students enrolled in college directly after high school and 16 percent graduated with degrees within six years.
With another group of 30 students ready to head off to college, Higher Edge advisors are busy “recruiting” members of this year’s junior class, visiting New London High School, Grasso Tech and the local magnet schools.
One of the program’s strategies is to have its college students serve as role models. Livenette Negron has fulfilled this function for a younger brother who joined the program and for other high school students, having worked as a Higher Edge intern the past two summers.
Soto came to New London from West New York, N.J., a city that was dubbed Havana on the Hudson due to its large number of Cuban émigrés 50 years ago and now is more than 80 percent Hispanic. He graduated the Coast Guard Academy in 2003 and served five years, two as an engineer in Miami and three years with and anti-terrorism unit based in New York City.
In 2008, Soto left the Coast Guard and returned to Connecticut. After working at his alma mater, focusing on diversity and student retention, Soto went to Brown University in Providence, R.I. and earned a master’s degree in public administration. He also interned at College Visions, a program that offers college admissions coaching to high school students.
Returning again to New London, which he calls a “cool place to live,” he founded the College Access Program, since renamed Higher Edge, in 2011.
As for the future, Soto expects the program to grow beyond the 31 students it helped this year. “We are ready now to move up to 40 high school seniors,” he said, with the current four-person staff likely to add another person. A satellite program also is in the works for Willimantic.
Soto, who is a Democrat, was appointed to LPRAC by state Rep. Themis Klarides, the House’s Republican minority leader, at the recommendation of another Republican, state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, whose district includes part of New London.
On the local level, Soto said, political affiliations become less important and he works well with Bumgardner.
For more information on Higher Edge, please visit: http://higheredgect.org/