Poverty Not Destiny: Elite Colleges Team Up to Give Talented Yet Impoverished Youths the Skirls Necessary to Apply, Get Accepted and Thrive at the Nation's Most Selective Higher Ed Institutions

By Cooper, Kenneth J. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

Poverty Not Destiny: Elite Colleges Team Up to Give Talented Yet Impoverished Youths the Skirls Necessary to Apply, Get Accepted and Thrive at the Nation's Most Selective Higher Ed Institutions


Cooper, Kenneth J., Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Elite colleges and universities have encountered criticism because students from upscale families have come to dominate the schools' Black enrollments. African-American alumni of an earlier generation and other critics want more low-income students admitted.

National studies, though, show that only a small percentage of high school seniors from poor Black or Hispanic families even bother to apply to the country's best colleges. Most of these students incorrectly assume they would never get into top schools or could not possibly afford to attend them.

For most of the past decade, seven college-prep programs--most housed at prestigious private universities--have made some headway in reversing this trend and misconception. Collectively, the programs are known as "Preparing High Potential Youth for Excellence and Leadership," a name given them by the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which provided partial funding.

"It's important because they don't have the financial support that is required to prepare for higher education, in many cases, and readiness and preparation for college," says Dr. Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president of evaluation and research at the Educational Testing Service. "It's also important for the diversification of colleges and universities."

Since 2000, the year-round programs built around intensive academic preparation during summers have served 2,000 high school students from underrepresented groups. About three-quarters are African-American or Hispanic. The median annual income of all students' families was $35,000 and nearly a quarter were living below the federal poverty line.

Except for Catholic school students in New York City, most students attended public schools. Almost 60 percent had no one in their families who had completed college.

The goals of the programs are to lift the students' aspirations so they aim to attend one of 185 selective colleges, prepare them academically to win admission and then guide them through the application and financial aid process. By those standards, the programs have been a noteworthy success, based on a 2009 evaluation by the Educational Testing Service. Ninety percent of students who start the programs complete them. Through June 2009, 91 percent of the programs' more than 1,200 graduates had applied to selective colleges, 82 percent were accepted and 70 percent had enrolled in one. Those schools were rated either "most competitive" or "highly competitive" in the 2009 Barron's profiles of American colleges.

Students who have completed the prep program have gone on to attend more than 100 selective colleges including all of the Ivy League institutions, the Seven Sisters, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Duke University, the University of Texas-Austin, California Institute of Technology and the University of California-Berkeley.

Other students have enrolled at HBCUs, including Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University and Florida A&M University. At least one has gone to a Hispanic-serving institution, New Mexico State University.

The rates of elite college aspiration for the programs' graduates were much higher than those of a somewhat similar national sample of African-American or Hispanic high school students whose families earned less than $35,000 a year. Those students were from poorer families than the program's participants, whose families had a median income of $35,000.

For the national sample, 31 percent applied to selective colleges, 25 percent were accepted and 15 percent enrolled.

The Crimson Summer Academy, based at Harvard University since 2004, has regularly interviewed and surveyed its students to track attitudes and aspirations. "They feel it has empowered them to dream higher than they might have," says Maxine Rodburg, the academy's director.

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Besides Harvard, the summer programs are based at Bank Street College of Education, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Denver and the University of Southern California. …

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