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Helping Low-Income Students Gain College Access AND Success

September 16, 2014

William_goodloe_for_PhilanTopicAs children across the country headed back to school this fall, the United States reached a milestone of sorts: nearly half the children enrolled in public schools now come from low-income families. As the public school population in the U.S. grows poorer, the need to improve college access and success for low-income students grows ever more acute. Indeed, politicians, business leaders, and policy makers are beginning to recognize what those in the philanthropic community have known for decades: a college education is the most reliable way of moving people out of poverty — permanently.

At Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, we know it's not always so easy to get low-income students on the path to higher education. To address that reality, we operate a program for low-income students called SEO Scholars that spends four years preparing program participants for college and another four years providing counseling and mentoring to make sure they graduate.

We're careful to say that SEO Scholars is not the answer for every student. We work with a specific population — students from low-income families (the average family income is less than $30,000 a year) in New York and San Francisco who are motivated to better their lives. In most cases, their regular teachers think they'll do just fine without additional help. The data tell a different story. Without additional help, many low-income students, no matter how motivated they are, graduate from high school without the academic preparation they need to succeed in a rigorous four-year college. Without additional support, low-income students who routinely get As and Bs in high school tend not to perform as well on the SAT or ACT. And in the college selection process, they "undermatch" — enrolling in a community college, a for-profit school, or a local college where dropout rates often are unacceptably high, instead of aiming for admission to a more competitive school with higher graduation rates and deeper financial aid resources.

Over the fifty-one years that SEO has been in existence, we've refined our program to give public school students the skills they need. Here's how: SEO Scholars attend "Saturday Academy," afterschool classes, and a four-week "Summer Academy," where, over the course of three and a half years, they are exposed to a proprietary curriculum comprising math, reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary building — over seven hundred and twenty  instructional hours in all. With that kind of strong academic preparation, our scholars typically do well on the SAT — far above the national norm for low-income students and even better than the national norm for all students (including affluent ones). We also help our SEO Scholars throughout the college application process. As a result, all of our students gain admission to competitive four-year colleges; this year SEO Scholars were accepted to Vassar, Columbia, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California, among other institutions. We then work with our scholars to make sure they get the maximum financial aid they’re entitled to and don't take on too much debt.

We understand that being accepted is only the first step on a long journey to a degree and career success. To help our scholars complete that journey, we keep in close touch with ongoing one-on-one support via regular phone calls and meet-ups during holiday breaks. We teach them the importance of forming or joining a study group, selecting courses in their major, and meeting with their professors during office hours, and we show them how to save when buying or renting college textbooks. We also work with them to line up internships so they graduate with some career experience under their belt. And we support them when life throws them a curveball, whether it's a relative who falls ill, a parent who loses a job, or just trying to figure out how to afford a bus ticket home at Thanksgiving. While these are the kinds of things many college students will have to deal with over the course of their four years in school, for low-income, first-generation college students they often can seem like insurmountable hurdles. We understand that and work with our scholars to build their resiliency, provide a sounding board for their frustrations, and function as an early warning system when they stumble.

Over the years, we also have learned a few things about what philanthropy can do to improve college access and success for low-income kids. The key, in our opinion, is to support targeted programs that provide long-term academic skills, guidance, and mentoring. It's not enough to tell children to dream big. Many of us assume that low-income children who thrive in their underresourced high schools will flourish in college. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of them attend substandard schools and need supplemental academic preparation if they are to excel academically at a competitive college. Absent such assistance, far too many flounder and end up without a degree and college debt.

Carefully calibrated, high-touch programs like ours aren’t cheap: the SEO Scholars program costs $5,000 per year per student. But the results — 80 percent of SEO Scholars graduate from college in four years and 95 percent graduate within six years — demonstrate a remarkable return on that investment.

We're proud that our partners in business, philanthropy, and higher education see SEO Scholars as a good investment. In fact, their support is fueling an expansion of the program: last year we accepted 126 ninth-graders from an applicant pool numbering 741, and this year we will accept 250 ninth-graders.

We have also started working with a forward-looking university in Massachusetts to adapt the college component of SEO Scholars for all its first-generation freshmen. We think this is a model that can, and should be, scaled. We encourage the philanthropic community to support comprehensive, long-term solutions such as SEO Scholars so that all children — regardless of economic status — can earn a college degree and have a fair shot at forging a successful career and meaningful life.

William Goodloe is president and CEO of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, which has gained widespread recognition for developing comprehensive programs that prepare underserved and underrepresented young people for academic and career success.

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