College-Success Programs Help Low-Income Students Thrive

It’s a “fundamental injustice,” that low-income children struggle to get to college and is “not fair to those students and is not the right thing for our country.”
By @katierucke |
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    St. Louis Park High School coach Shakita Thomas works with student Kevin Buckhalton. (Photo courtesy of College Possible)

    St. Louis Park High School coach Shakita Thomas works with student Kevin Buckhalton. (Photo courtesy of College Possible)

    A new study from researchers at Harvard University found that the surest way out of poverty is for a person to obtain a four-year degree. Despite efforts of several college-success organizations to help low-income children enrolled in a four-year accredited college, only 8.3 percent of students from low-income families earn a college degree by the time they are 24 years old; meaning children from upper income households are 9 times more likely to earn a college degree than those who come from a low-income household.

    Although many college-success organizations have worked to change this statistic and diversify college campuses not only ethnically and racially, but economically, no one had ever examined whether these organizations actually made a difference in a students success, or if the students would have been successful regardless of any program — until now.

    About three years ago, researchers at Harvard University decided to examine the effect college-success organizations had on a low-income students success when it came to higher education. Specifically, they wanted to determine if these organizations actually helped the students or if the students are so driven they would have been successful regardless of their enrollment in a program.

    For the study, Dr. Chris Avery, a Roy E. Larsen professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, partnered with College Possible, an organization based in Minneapolis.

    Using College Possible students as a test group, Avery and his fellow researchers examined the ACT scores, financial aid packages and college admission rates of students who received assistance from the program in a three-year randomized controlled trial, compared to those who were on their own.

    What Avery and his team found was that College Possible students applied to and were more often accepted into four-year colleges than two-year programs, and they had more options when it came to financial aid packages than students who were not enrolled in the program. While Avery stressed that those students who were not chosen to be enrolled in the program were still successful and did amazing things, he said the students in the program did even better.

    “There is a ton of evidence that where you start out in society — where you start out in income is indicative of where you end up,” said Dr. Mike McPherson, author of “Crossing the Finish Line,” and President Emeritus at Macalester College.

    “There’s a lot of evidence that succeeding in college makes a very important difference to our futures and futures of our society,” he said, adding that it is a “huge waste of talent when a person can’t begin or finish college.”

    McPherson continued to say that too often he sees students drop out of school because they enrolled in a program that is too much of a financial burden for them, and stressed that there is a need to help students make better choices on where to start college careers.

    Avery agreed and said that the college application process often gets in the way of students from low-income households going to college because it is confusing and often only available in English, which goes against the ideal of education.

    The Obama administration too has stressed that colleges and universities need to racially diversity campuses, and this past fall sent a letter to schools across the nation saying that “racially diverse education environments help to prepare students succeed in our increasingly diverse nation.”


    Effective program vs. choosing winners
    In a panel discussion on the research’s findings, Avery said that while there are many programs doing good work across the country, no one had ever determined whether the success of a low-income student should be attributed to a program or if that program just picked students who were winners.

    He explained that for the study the researchers and College Possible created a list of admissible students and selected 130 students at random for a spot in the program’s Minneapolis-area program from a list of 240 students who qualified.

    According to Sara Dziuk, executive director of College Possible, all of the students come from low-income families, meaning they either qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, and must have a grade point average of 2.0 or higher.

    “Many of our students are first generation college students,” Dziuk explained. “No one is at home that has gone through college before — they would be the first one — so it’s really challenging, that college going process.”

    According to Dr. David Laird Jr., who moderated the panel discussion, College Possible actually lowered its standards for accepting students into the program for the study, since he said the true test of a program like this is if it can help even those students who are at a higher risk of not getting a higher education.

    Jim McCorkell is the CEO and Founder of College Possible and has been with the organization since its inception about 13 years ago. He said that if a low-income student has a coach or caring adult that can guide them through the college application process and the hurdles in college, they can be more successful.

    Now in its 13th year of serving students, McCorkell’s creation has spread to other parts of the country in addition to the 20 different high schools College Possible works with in the Twin Cities area alone, including St. Paul and Minneapolis high schools.

    “To share a little bit of my own personal story, I grew up in a low-income house,” McCorkell said. Yet he and his four siblings were able to go on to college and get their degrees.

    McCorkell said he created College Possible because going to college allowed him and his siblings — one of whom is a doctor, another a civil engineer — to earn a higher income and enter the middle class.

    It’s a “fundamental injustice,” that low-income children struggle to get to college and is “not fair to those students and is not the right thing for our country,” he said.

    McCorkell added that the generation entering college right now “desperately wants to change the world,” and “has the energy to do it.” He said that since the College Possible model cost about one-seventh of what federally-funded models cost, and that he is really excited his program, which has a track record of 98 percent admission to college and a graduation rate five times higher than other low-income kids, was found to be efficient and effective in the study.


    Diversity in the workforce
    Dr. Mary Hyde is the deputy director of Research and Evaluation at the federal agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, whose mission is to support and engage young people. She said it is critical that we as a country “recognize and appreciate the differences a variety of perspectives from different ethnic, cultural and income backgrounds have to offer,” and applauded programs like College Possible for working to ensure more children are able to receive a higher education.

    Hyde said we should “embrace a diverse workforce and customer base” since a “lack of diversity hurts us in the long run,” and added that “Obviously as a federal agency we have a mission to act in the public interest on two critical issues that couldn’t be more related: access to education and economic opportunity.”

    Dziuk agreed, saying “Diversity is important for college campuses,” since a diverse student body population brings new ideas and new perspectives, which in turn allows students to “learn more, know more and be better citizens.”

    She added that diverse colleges translate into a diverse workforce, and that having so many low-income students gain four-year degrees not only changes life for that particular student, but it also impacts their family, community, neighborhood and future.

    Dziuk said many College Possible graduates go on to do amazing things and said many of them have opted to come back to pay-it-forward and work at College Possible.

    But as Marlene Ibsen, CEO and President of the Travelers Company’s Travelers Foundation, which is a supporter of College Possible, said employers too are taking note of the effect programs like College Possible have on a student.

    She said that “If you look at a company like Travelers we have very few positions that don’t require at least a bachelors degree. The idea that a program is making it more likely that underserved students will complete that degree and have that experience in a program is really important to us and why we work with College Possible.

    “These are the students we are looking for,” Ibsen said, adding that there is a need for diversity in the workforce.

    However, the American public may not be as ready for a diverse workforce and education system as one would think.

    According to a July 2013 Gallup poll, about 67 percent of Americans believe that colleges should admit students solely based on merit, even if that results in very few minority students being admitted to college.

    But the Justice Department and Department of Education have applauded efforts by various schools and organizations around the country, as well as Supreme Court rulings, that favor a diverse enrollment since a diverse student body “promotes cross-racial understanding and classroom dialogue, reduces racial isolation, and helps to break down stereotypes.”

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