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Bee Vue is only 26 but has already lived a remarkable life.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to ethnic Hmong parents who fled Laos during the Vietnam war, Vue came to the US as a child and grew up on the poor east side of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Always very bright, he studied hard and won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming the first Hmong to be admitted to the university. From there, he went to the University of Michigan for his master’s degree and then on to work as a rocket scientist at Aerojet, an aerospace company in Sacramento, California, in the Orion main engine team.
Yet despite his obvious talent and determination, Vue says his story only happened because of College Possible, a non-profit organisation that helps young people from underprivileged backgrounds get into university and find funding to pay tuition and living expenses.
“My parents didn’t know the first thing about how to get into college, so they couldn’t help me at all with that,” says Vue. “They didn’t realise what a big deal it was for me to get into MIT until I was featured in the local newspaper.”
“Without College Possible, I wouldn’t have got into MIT. And once I was admitted, I was only able to actually attend because I got a Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, and I certainly couldn’t have got that without College Possible.”
Jim McCorkell, College Possible’s founder and chief executive, is rightly proud of such success stories. Yet he says the organisation’s real innovation in the world of education is not just to have enabled more young people from poor backgrounds to fulfil their potential, but also to be doing so in a much cheaper and more efficient way than has been done before.
That is because of College Possible’s unique structure, which uses members of AmeriCorps, a US national service programme, to advise and mentor high school and college students.
For a non-profit organisation, College Possible is also highly results driven: at its headquarters in Saint Paul, a large board displays up-to-date figures for the proportion of high-school students enrolled in the programme who have been admitted to college.
The results are impressive: 98 per cent of all the pupils College Possible has worked with have earned admission to college, the vast majority of them to universities where they are on four-year degree courses.
It has also grown fast. In 2000, its first year, the programme served 35 pupils at two high schools in the “twin cities” of Minneapolis and Saint Paul – among them Vue. In the last academic year, it worked with nearly 8,700 young people at 28 high schools and 150 colleges. It has expanded to Omaha in Nebraska and Portland in Oregon, and is looking at adding programmes in Philadelphia and New York, with the aim of establishing itself in 10 cities within the next five years.
The organisation was singled out for praise by Barack Obama, the US president, at a White House event in 2009 highlighting innovative programmes that made a difference to their communities. McCorkell also received an alumni achievement award from Harvard Kennedy School this year.
Genial and infectiously enthusiastic, McCorkell says his own life experience fed into the idea. The youngest of five siblings, he grew up in a low-income family in rural Minnesota, a farming area where most children of his socio-economic background did not go to college. His parents had met in high school and left before finishing, his father becoming a house painter and his mother working in a commercial laundry.
His four siblings all went to state colleges after high school, but McCorkell was admitted to Carleton College, a small but expensive liberal arts university south of the twin cities. As a student from a poor background, he secured financial aid and graduated with a level of debt similar to that of his siblings.
It was a graphic illustration, he says, that going to an expensive college need not mean taking on mountains of debt, because financial assistance is available. In fact, for poor students it can be cheaper to attend a top-end private college with an aid package than to go to a state institution. “But you have to be a pretty sophisticated consumer to understand that,” McCorkell says. “A lot of low-income students look at the price tag and think, ‘I can’t go there – that’s for rich kids’.”
The organisation changed its name last year from Admission Possible, in part to reflect that its focus had expanded from high schools to supporting students in university and ensuring they continued to receive the financial support they need to study.
For McCorkell, College Possible is about trying to give poorer students the advantages of their middle-class peers. “Look at who earns a college degree by the age of 24: of kids from the upper income quartile, 80 per cent are earning a four-year degree. For the bottom quartile, the rate is 8 per cent. That strikes me as very unfair,” he says.
“We should have the expectation in this country that everyone should be able to go as far as their talent will take them and not be constrained by their family, economic or racial background.”