December 6, 2012 5:02 am

Brain bank

students of College Possible©Richard Sennott

College Possible, a non-profit organisation that helps young people from underprivileged backgrounds get into university, has big plans.

By 2020, it hopes to reach 40,000 students annually across the US, up from the current 8,700 young people at 28 high schools and 150 colleges.

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Jim McCorkell, founder and chief executive of College Possible, is clear about how helping young people can boost productivity and help the economy.

“One business leader estimated the return driven by contributions to the tax base of someone who gets a college education at more than $1m over their lifetime,” he says. “We’ve got many companies partnering with us to get access to our college students because we’re helping to create a diverse and talented pipeline.”

Students on his programme typically graduate with degrees that help them find jobs more quickly than their peers from wealthier backgrounds. “The poorer you are, the more likely you are to major in something that looks like a job, like nursing or accounting,” he says.

Since it was founded in 1998, when the programme served 35 pupils at two high schools in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, the organisation has added offices in Omaha, Nebraska and Portland, Oregon. It aims to establish a presence in 10 cities within the next five years.

“When we go into a new city, we have the task of raising a minimum $2m over three years from the private sector, corporate boards and foundations,” he says.

The organisation coaches students to help them find funding to pay college tuition and living expenses, and gives high school pupils a grounding in basic financial literacy.

About 98 per cent of high school students on the programme earn admission to college, the vast majority to four-year institutions.

Some 37 per cent who go through the programme and enrol in a four-year degree course graduate within four years, while 56 per cent graduate within six years. That compares favourably with the national statistic for low-income students – only 11 per cent graduate within six years.

McCorkell received an alumni achievement award from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government this year, and was recognised by President Barack Obama at a White House event in 2009 highlighting innovative programmes that make a difference to communities.

Iris Hoover, 25, and her twin sister were raised in St Paul by a single mother who worked as a nurse and was frustrated when her applications for promotion were turned down because she only had a two-year associate degree. “She pushed my sister and I either to go to college or get a job and pay rent,” says Hoover.

She considered studying locally but College Possible broadened her ambitions and she ended up studying sociology at private Beloit College in Wisconsin. She now works in the continuing education programme at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota. Her sister, who was also coached by College Possible, is studying for her PhD in engineering.

To “give something back”, Hoover worked after graduation for College Possible, advising and mentoring students.

One of the organisation’s aims, and challenges, is to help prospective students navigate the financial aid process and overcome the common view that top private universities are beyond their financial means.

That is especially the case for ethnic minority students, says McCorkell. “Many people come dangerously close to saying that if you’re a low-income person or a person of colour, you should be content to go to a community college and get a two-year degree or a certificate in welding.

“I very rarely meet an upper-middle-class person, a partner at a law firm, a doctor or a successful business person who is dreaming that their daughter is going to get a certificate in welding.”

That need not mean that a student with Ivy League ability should settle for a local state university for financial reasons. Many students from low-income backgrounds could find they are eligible for financial assistance, making it cheaper to attend a top private college than to go to a state institution.

“There’s a lot of aid available,” McCorkell says.

“Typically, the kids from our programme will graduate with debt of less than $10,000,” he says, compared with the national average debt level upon graduation of $30,000.

McCorkell wants the young people in his programme to understand what they are getting into and so encourages college applicants not to take on more debt than they could expect to earn after graduation. 

So is college for everyone? “Not necessarily a four-year degree,” says McCorkell. “But this economy is going to require everyone to have some kind of post-secondary education.”

The more success he has in placing young people from poor backgrounds in top universities, the more high school students will see what is possible. “A key element of tackling America’s education problem is having low-income kids see somebody who looks like them and came from the community and had a good outcome.”

If College Possible can even approach the numbers in its ambitious plan, there are soon going to be many more role models available to expand the horizons of those under-privileged children.

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