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New Initiative Moves Beyond College Access for Low-Income Students

October 22, 2013

(The following post was written by AiLun Ku, a program director at the Opportunity Network, which works to put high-achieving low-income New York City high school students on the road to college and a good career, and Greg MacDonald, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.)

Headshot_ailunku_gregmacdonaldEvery college economics professor can tell you about the multiplier effect, but when they do they usually focus on the income side of the equation. In contrast, Lafayette College and the Opportunity Network have developed a multiplier effect in the form of an investment that expands diversity at a highly competitive liberal arts college and enriches the experience for low-income, first-generation students.

Issues of college access continue to make headlines. The Lafayette College-Opportunity Network partnership moves beyond the debate about access by supporting students not only through the admissions process but throughout their college careers.

Through the partnership, Lafayette will admit, with each incoming freshman class, three to six well-qualified applicants from the Opportunity Network and provide them with financial aid to fully meet their needs during their college years. Students attending Lafayette through the partnership will be spared having to overcome the major obstacles to higher education faced by so many first-generations students — cost and a lack of information and guidance needed to navigate the admissions process.

But gaining admission to college is only half the battle. Today, even high-achieving high school students are graduating without the tools needed to excel in a college environment that often is dramatically different from their home and high school. Too many students need to learn how to manage time and money, how to advocate for themselves, how to find and ask for academic help, how to adapt to life on a college campus where most students come from higher-income backgrounds, and how to build a network of people willing to support them in school and beyond.

Through the program, Opportunity Network students will participate in an intensive college transition "boot camp" that offers experiential lessons related to these and other skills. Lafayette and The Opportunity Network will work together to provide students with ongoing support, including a series of workshops and networking events focused on college and career success. In addition, each student will be paired with a peer mentor and will receive support in obtaining summer internships during their four years of college.

For high-achieving low-income students, the multiplier effect is obvious. Students will learn from experts, study with intellectually motivated peers, have the opportunity to dramatically expand their career options, and, hopefully, change their life trajectories. For Lafayette, the multiplier effect extends to the entire school community. Not only will students from the Opportunity Network add an element of economic diversity to the campus, they'll bring diverse life experiences, a variety of international experiences, and, in many cases, more than one language. They'll enrich Lafayette while helping the school achieve its goal of creating a diverse and inclusive learning community.

Of course, launching a partnership is the easy part; making sure it is successful year after year is where the pedal meets the metal. Lafayette's administration and faculty and Opportunity Network staff are committed to contributing whatever is required in terms of time and resources to nurture each new class of Opportunity Network students and ensure the long-term success of the program. Both partners have designated staff to meet on a regular basis, compare notes on the progress of individual students, and make recommendations on how to improve the program. To that end, the partners held the first of what will be a series of workshops, "Five Easy Ways NOT to Get Admitted to College," on October 1, 2013.

The multiplier effect isn't the only economics lesson the Lafayette College-Opportunity Network partnership hopes to teach. The second is return on investment. Few investments return more value for goal-oriented low-income students than four years at an elite institution of higher education. We believe the Lafayette College-Opportunity Network is an investment that will pay off not only for students enrolled today, but also for the scores of students who will benefit from the partnership in years to come.

-- AiLun Ku and Greg MacDonald

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