College Prep Summer Programs Target Talented, Low-Income Students

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by Kenneth J. Cooper

Elite colleges and universities have encountered criticism because students from upscale families have come to dominate the schools’ Black enrollments. African-American alumni of an earlier generation and other critics want more low-income students admitted.

National studies, though, show that only a small percentage of high school seniors from poor Black or Hispanic families even bother to apply to the country’s best colleges. Most of these students incorrectly assume they would never get into top schools or could not possibly afford to attend them.

For most of the past decade, seven college-prep programs — most housed at prestigious private universities — have made some headway in reversing this trend and misconception. Collectively, the programs are known as “Preparing High Potential Youth for Excellence and Leadership,” a name given them by the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which provided partial funding.

“It’s important because they don’t have the financial support that is required to prepare for higher education, in many cases, and readiness and preparation for college,” says Dr. Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president of evaluation and research at the Educational Testing Service. “It’s also important for the diversification of colleges and universities.”

Since 2000, the year-round programs built around intensive academic preparation during summers have served 2,000 high school students from underrepresented groups. About three-quarters are African-American or Hispanic. The median annual income of all students’ families was $35,000 and nearly a quarter were living below the federal poverty line.

Except for Catholic school students in New York City, most students attended public schools. Almost 60 percent had no one in their families who had completed college.

The goals of the programs are to lift the students’ aspirations so they aim to attend one of 185 selective colleges, prepare them academically to win admission and then guide them through the application and financial aid process. By those standards, the programs have been a noteworthy success, based on a 2009 evaluation by the Educational Testing Service. Ninety percent of students who start the programs complete them. Through June 2009, 91 percent of the programs’ more than 1,200 graduates had applied to selective colleges, 82 percent were accepted and 70 percent had enrolled in one. Those schools were rated either “most competitive” or “highly competitive” in the 2009 Barron’s profiles of American colleges.

Students who have completed the prep program have gone on to attend more than 100 selective colleges including all of the Ivy League institutions, the Seven Sisters, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, Duke University, the University of Texas-Austin, California Institute of Technology and the University of California-Berkeley.

Other students have enrolled at HBCUs, including Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Hampton University and Florida A&M University. At least one has gone to a Hispanic-serving institution, New Mexico State University.

The rates of elite college aspiration for the programs’ graduates were much higher than those of a somewhat similar national sample of African-American or families earned less than $35,000 a year. Those students were from poorer families than the program’s participants, whose families had a median income of $35,000.

For the national sample, 31 percent applied to selective colleges, 25 percent were accepted and 15 percent enrolled. The Crimson Summer Academy, based at Harvard University since 2004, has regularly interviewed and surveyed its students to track attitudes and aspirations.

“They feel it has empowered them to dream higher than they might have,” says Maxine Rodburg, the academy’s director.

Besides Harvard, the summer programs are based at Bank Street College of Education, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Denver and the University of Southern California.

The Goldman Sachs Foundation has provided nearly $26.5 million in funding for the seven programs, one of which is conducted on four campuses. One program is not connected to a college.

The I-LEAD program at Bank Street, mainly for Catholic school students, is old enough to track its college graduation rate. The ETS reports that 60 percent of I-LEAD’s first class had graduated in four years.

The seven programs are not identical, but share several components. Each has academic preparation that lasts three to seven weeks during the summer, and all but one has enrichment activities on weekends and after school throughout the year. All seven provide mentoring and guidance on high school curriculums, academics, college admissions, financial aid and life skills.

Dr. Catherine Millett, a senior research scientist at ETS and co-author along with Nettles of the evaluation, says program directors and faculty members send the low-income students a common message:

“You can do it, and we’re here to help you.” The programs go beyond academic preparation for an elite college. “It isn’t just about academics,” Millett says. “It’s thinking about social issues — How will this play out in your family?”

Those are important considerations, especially for the 60 percent of the programs’ graduates who are in line to become first-generation college graduates. Of the total 1,200 graduates, 39 percent are Hispanic and 37 percent are African-American. The female-male ratio is relatively balanced, 54 percent to 46 percent. About 23 percent of graduates are from impoverished families.

Average family income for students who have participated in the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard has been $29,000, Rodburg says, even lower than the median for all seven programs. She says “Crimson Scholars” have included students who were on welfare, homeless or in foster care.

Participants come from 35 public schools in Boston or nearby Cambridge and are required to have recommendations from their respective schools. About 130 students are nominated for 30 slots. The only test-based requirement for admission, Rodburg says, is that nominees must have passed the standardized test that Massachusetts requires for high school graduation.

ETS says 99 percent of graduates from the Harvard program have applied to a selective college, 90 percent have been accepted and 75 percent have enrolled in one — higher rates than the overall average for the seven programs. Most of the students are African-American or Hispanic.

Rodburg says of the first class of 30 students, who entered the academy in 2004, about 25 graduated from college in four years. Another two are on track to finish in December, two more in a year or so. Graduation, however, is not in sight at the moment for one.

None of the host colleges guarantees admission upon completion of the college prep programs. Through the years, eight academy participants have enrolled at Harvard.

Several studies have shown that most students of color at Harvard — as well as Princeton and Yale and other elite schools — come from upper-income families.

“My concern is to continue the effort to recruit and admit students from the inner city — African-American students. There needs to be a stronger effort to reach out to them, like there was when I was a student at Mount Holyoke in 1969,” says Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. She is a 1979 graduate of Harvard Law School and a 1973 graduate of Mount Holyoke College, one of the Seven Sisters. Wilcher commended Harvard and the other host colleges for their summer programs.

During Harvard’s program, which lasts from five to seven weeks, students learn writing, critical reading, public speaking, digital photography, mathematics and science from “master teachers” recruited from the Boston area, Rodburg says.

Crimson Academy is the program richest in resources, according to Millett. The high school students live on campus during the week for the summer coursework, receive laptops and $200 weekly stipends, and upon graduation are awarded another $3,000 to help with college costs.

“We just feel that our kids are entitled to the same things that upper-class kids have,” Millett explains.

After receiving grants for two years from the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which is reducing its overall support for the seven programs, the academy is entirely funded by the office of Harvard’s president.

Other programs are not so financially fortunate. “What many of these programs need now is an angel donor. The programs have many more people who want to come, and they can’t fill that need,” Millett says.

Other funding sources could not only scale up the programs but also spread them around the country. (Willamette University in Oregon, Suffolk University in Boston and other colleges already host similar programs designed to prepare high school students to attend college — any college.)

“Many of these programs you can see being transferred from one place to another,” Millett says of Developing High Potential Youth. “This is what you hope for — that people across the country are recreating programs.”

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