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Promise Seen in College-Awareness Program for Middle Schoolers

Educators eager for the right formula to motivate low-income students to aspire to college can find promise in a new study that endorses early exposure to college, mentoring, and community service leadership.

University of Michigan researchers found strong evidence that this combination of interventions used by the 22-year-old, non-profit College for Every Student had a substantial impact on college-going attitudes of disadvantaged students. Seventy-five percent of its program participants in the study plan to attend four-year colleges, compared with 5 percent of students in a control group.

While CFES, based in Essex, N.Y., works with 20,000 students (K-12) in 200 schools, the study released this week focused on its effectiveness among a sample of 1,100 middle school students in 21 schools across 10 states. The program's highest concentration is with students in grades 6-9.

The organization's annual $3.5 million budget comes from private donations from corporations, foundations, and individuals, as well as some federal Title 1 funds. Teachers are trained to deliver the services and provide the extra support, along with volunteer mentors. College students, business representatives, and other community members are often involved. Sessions take place before or after school, in a special period of the day, or during lunch

Each school involved can decide how to choose students— or CFES scholars—to be involved in the program. The organization aims to help low-income, first generation college students for at least three years, said CFES President and Chief Executive Officer Rick Dalton in a phone interview. "Often it is a band of students that are under-resourced or under-performing," he said.

Beginning as early as elementary school, CFES scholars are exposed to the possibility of college and encouraged to begin planning. Throughout the program, there are campus visits and mentors to help guide individual students. The scholars are given leadership opportunities to organize community service projects of their choosing to help build new skills and confidence.

"Students get ongoing leadership training," says Dalton. "We often say, 'You are not tomorrow's leaders, you are today's.'"

The study found that networking with an adult mentor outside of school and the social exchange of working with college students was positively linked with students' plans to enroll in postsecondary education. Students also expanded their views of college by talking with college reps, working with their families to plan for college, and by setting goals, the evaluation said.

The evaluation found CFES had the right balance of approaches that made a difference in college-going rates for disadvantaged kids. "This research concludes that through these forms of social support that enable students and their parents to build academic capital, CFES' core practices provide means of educational uplift of low-income, underrepresented students," according to a statement by Ed St. John, the Michigan researcher involved in the study.

CFES has programs in 24 states. About one-quarter are in rural areas and the rest in urban locations. (Click here for a map of where the programs are located.)

Dalton said his vision is to double the program in the next seven years to serve 40,000 students. It is also working with partners internationally, including efforts in Ireland to provide college-awareness programs in conjunction with local universities.

"We are all about evolution. Our challenge is to get better every year," says Dalton. While the goals haven't changed, the program is working to be relevant to STEM initiatives and changes underway with the Common Core State Standards.

"We are so passionate about the mission," said Dalton. "Everything is tied to the mission of helping low-income kids get into and be successful in college. Every activity has to be about that goal."

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