Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding College Access in California

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Expanding College Access in California

Article excerpt

Julia I. Lopez was already retired for three years from her position as senior vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2008 when she received a call from a head hunter who wondered if she might have any interest in serving as the president and CEO of the College ures Foundation (then known as College Access Foundation of California).

Jusi three years old at the time, the foundation, which awards nearly $20 million in grants annually and has an endowment of about S500 million, was pushing a lofty goal: that college attainment and success be options for every student in California.

"I wasn't looking for a job, but the opportunity was very attractive for me at the time because it was a start-up essentially," says Lopez, who spent half of her career working in local and state government in New Mexico and California before transitioning into philanthropy in the 1990s, where she developed a broad portfolio working on a wide array of issues from food security to poverty,

"I had an extensive background in California," says Lopez. "I was good at philanthropy, but I had very little experience in higher ed."

Still, it did not take Lopez long to make an impact in the education arena.

During her tenure at the College Access Foundation, she shifted the foundation's strategy from simply being a grantor of student scholarships to facilitating and tracking data on college attainment in the state. In the process, her supporters say, she helped to change the policies, practices, systems and institutions to better support student success throughout California.

"Julia Lopez has been a leading champion of students and low-income populations throughout her career," says Toby Rosenblatt, chairman of the College Futures Foundation's board of directors. "She leaves a legacy to be proud of, and leaves College Futures at a good moment for new leadership to take the helm. The foundation is on a strong new trajectory to significantly improve college access and success for California students."

Having spent her early years working in the San Francisco Department of Social Services, where she oversaw programs serving the city's most disadvantaged residents, Lopez was ready to jumpstart a conversation about educational inequities when she took the helm of the foundation.

"My work has really been about creating opportunity for folks who didn't have it, including in the early days advocating for inmates to get an education in the 1970s," says Lopez about her advocacy for college students. "So for me, it was just putting that knowledge to work in a different domain, so to speak.

"The theme of opportunity, system barriers for folks who are perfectly capable of doing what needs to be done, but the system is not set up to be their friend, that's what I've been doing all of my life. So, for me, it was just putting that knowledge to work in a different domain."

In the early years, the foundation was doling out about 5,000 scholarships to low-income students from across the state by funding college access programs that had already established relationships with this demographic.

But then, Lopez had the idea of tracking the students they funded through the National Student Clearinghouse.

"One, is that you fall in love with these students once you meet them," says Lopez. "These are kids who are the poorest in the state. We weren't looking for valedictorians or top 10 percent. We were looking for kids who might not otherwise go to college. …

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