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Local schools aim to boost ranks of low-income, first-generation students

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Sheldon Ruby was the first person in his family to go to college.

But the 23-year-old from Bedford County might not have gone to a four-year school if he had not heard of a college in Lancaster that would welcome him.

Leaders at Franklin & Marshall College had decided, several years before Ruby was thinking of colleges, that it needed to broaden its student body by attracting more top students from families with lower incomes — students who too often felt left out by schools like F&M and other private institutions with price tags exceeding $50,000 a year.

Over the last decades, rising tuition priced many of the best colleges beyond the reach of students such as Ruby. But now, schools are trying to go in the other direction and working to recruit students whose families are not among the wealthy.

Ruby applied to F&M, was accepted, and graduated this past spring. He is serving this summer on a Fulbright Fellowship, teaching in Indonesia. He hopes to become a diplomat.

The number of high-achieving, lower-income students at F&M figures to increase in coming years. The college has taken a leadership role in the formation of a new effort, the American Talent Initiative, designed to boost the number of young men and women from modest means at top U.S. schools.

F&M, steered by its president, Daniel Porterfield, was among the first members of the initiative, a coalition of academia, private enterprise and philanthropy that formed this past December.

Ruby, reached in Indonesia, hailed the initiative, especially its emphasis on ensuring students felt they deserved their education.

“The plan is the first step to bridging the gap of inequality between students in the United States,” he said. “There were many times throughout my time at F&M that I felt that I was nothing more than a charity case that F&M took pity on. I’m not the only first-generation student to feel this way, and I certainly won’t be the last. But if we continue to support plans, like the ATI, that remind students that they aren’t charity, that they deserve an education, and that they bring value to their institutions, we are one step closer to more students like me walking across the stage and shaking Dr. Porterfield’s hand and receiving a degree.”

Porterfield said that joining the initiative was not just the right thing to do, it was also the smart thing to do.

“When you enroll talented students, you help every student, and you strengthen your school, both for all the students in it and for the overall community good,” he said.

F&M is joined by four other area colleges – Dickinson, Elizabethtown, Gettysburg and Lebanon Valley – that have signed onto the initiative.

The effort is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by Michael Bloomberg, a media heavyweight and former mayor of New York. It is managed by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank, and Ithaka S+R, a research and strategic guidance firm for academia.

More than 60 universities have joined the initiative, which is paired with a companion program of Bloomberg Philanthropies: CollegePoint. Started in 2014, CollegePoint provides high-achieving, low-income students with one-on-one virtual college counseling and advising on applying to and enrolling in top colleges, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ spokeswoman Rebecca Carriero said.

“By combining these efforts, we’ll be able to successfully provide more target students to the colleges,” Carriero said.

Each ATI institution will determine how best to recruit students, and Bloomberg and ATI will be researching what works best for ATI schools so they can share best practices.

Research shows that over 50 percent of the nation’s high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to a single selective college or university, despite their qualifications, Carriero said. Seventy percent of students at the country’s most competitive colleges come from families with incomes in the top 25 percent, but only 6 percent of students at top colleges and universities are low-income, she said.

“These students have limited resources to navigate the complex application process. High schools serving predominately low-income students have, on average, 1,000 students for every college counselor,” she said.

While ATI works to recruit new students who might not have considered college, others point out that a college degree is not the only ticket to a good job. At a time when the “skills gap” is pronounced in many trades, graduates of many two-year technical and trades schools are doing as well as, and sometimes better, than their counterparts from four-year colleges.

One official at the Aspen Institute points out that a four-year degree offers students specific advantanges in today's economy.

"ATI recognizes the very important role that community colleges play in providing access to affordable education, especially for lower-income students, and rather than from a competitive perspective, we are thinking very intentionally about how the Initiative can work in partnership with two-year schools to prepare successful graduates," Aspen Institute senior program manager Tania Nguyen LaViolet said.

"Our current research efforts are focused on just that—building transfer pathways at ATI-eligible institutions to expand access to the incredible talent found in community colleges."

ATI aims to attract, enroll, and graduate an extra 50,000 lower-income students by 2025 at the 270 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students in six years.

ATI plans to recruit more schools with similarly high graduation rates in coming years – Porterfield hopes to see ATI’s membership grow to around 100, he said. Current members include Duke University, Michigan University and the University of Texas, as well as all the Ivy League schools

ATI aims to do everything from finding ways to increase financial aid to counseling students once they do enroll. Like Ruby, many are likely to be the first in their family to pursue higher education and they often need help navigating the world of a college campus.

One college that joined ATI in recent months, Lebanon Valley College, is considering creating a Center For Inclusive Excellence, which would house a coordinator to work with first-generation and lower- and moderate-income students as they adjust to college life.

While specifics are still being developed, the coordinator would help students with academic and financial questions, serve as an adviser and program coordinator, and also help them in social areas, said Jessica Ickes, LVC’s associate dean of academic affairs and director of institutional research.

“Focusing on building a cohort support system among these students” will likely be a main goal for the position, she said.

Ickes said that 37.6 percent of LVC’s 1,600-plus undergraduate students are either eligible for Pell Grants, given to students from families with lower incomes, or first-generation college students. She hopes ATI helps those efforts even further.

“Bringing together these colleges with similar goals is a positive. We’re able to learn from each other, and optimize our strategies to support each other,” Ickes added.

Dickinson College officials have said that its class of 2020, about to enter its sophomore year, is the most diverse in the college’s 234-year history, with 21 percent being domestic students of color, 12 percent international students and 10 percent first-generation college students.

Going to college is a big transition for any student, but especially if you’re the first one in your family to go, said Dickinson’s point person for the ATI initiative, Stefanie Niles, college vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications.

“You have no (family) role models who have been through it, and without a different type of support network, it can be a real challenge,” she said.

So providing ongoing support for such students – what Niles called “trying to level the playing field” – can be vital, she said.

At F&M, Porterfield said the college’s incoming freshmen class in 2008 included just 5 percent who were eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Around that time, F&M switched from merit-based aid to need-based financial aid, and the number of Pell Grant recipients in each class has steadily risen.

Among first-year students starting in 2017, 21 percent - or four times the share in 2008 – will be Pell-eligible, Porterfield said.

This year, Pell Grant recipients outpaced the general student population among those graduating summa cum laude, magna and cum laude, college officials said. A full 29 percent of Pell graduates received one of those distinctions, while 28 percent of the entire class did so.

For magna and summa, 2017 Pell graduates hit 17 percent, compared to 13 percent for the overall student population, they said.

Added Porterfield, “We’ve strengthened the school, and we’ve shown that when you recruit talent from the full economic spectrum, that talent will succeed.”

Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, and head of education initiatives at Bloomberg's foundation, called Porterfield a national leader in the effort to attract lower-income students to four-year institutions.

“We know America can’t succeed if we don’t enroll America's top talent from all socio-economic backgrounds." he said. "That’s a problem we’re trying to fix. With Dan’s leadership, we have been able to bring together top colleges to commit to accepting and graduating more high-achieving, lower-income students, ensuring that qualified students have the opportunity to get the education and future that they deserve."

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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