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Virtual Advising System Aims to Expand College Access

Under new leadership this fall, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is looking at ways to get more disadvantaged students on the path to college with new outreach efforts, including the development of a virtual advising service.

Harold Levy, the executive director of the Lansdowne, Va.-based foundation since September, says he wants to raise the visibility and impact of the organization, which was formed 15 years ago by the estate of Cooke, a former owner of the Washington Redskins.

With its $700 million endowment, the foundation awards some of the most generous scholarships to high-achieving, low-income students. Nearly 235 students receive up to $40,000 a year for their education with programs for 8th graders through graduate students. "It cries out for recognition," said Levy, noting that the programs are larger than the Rhodes or Truman scholarships.

Levy, a former chancellor of the New York City public school system, said in an interview that he hopes to leverage the foundation's resources to help even more students who have overcome social barriers to excel academically.  As part of that effort, the foundation is working with technology firms to build a college search engine and virtual counseling tool for prospective students.

Levy describes it as a free online resource akin to Kayak.com, where travelers can compare several services on one website. With the new system, students would sign on, enter information or respond verbally with answers about their background and preferences.  "You could use technology to deal with 80 percent of the questions," he said. It would not eliminate the need for school counselors, but rather be a supplemental resource.

The hope is to help students, particularly those who are the first in their families to go to college, navigate the search process and avoid undermatching — where students don't enroll in the most selective schools that fit their abilities, said Levy.

The foundation plans to launch the new virtual advising system within six months.

The philanthropy has a history of incubating innovative programs and then taking them to scale, added Levy. It is one of the first and main funders of the College Advising Corps, which now has 500 recent college graduates working in high schools to promote college-going among first-generation college students.

To help high performing, low-income students excel, Levy is also advocating for better data-collection efforts. (See his recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on the topic.)  School officials should do more to monitor their progression of talented, low-income students to make sure students don't fall off track. "These kids are fragile," said Levy.  To boost the college graduation rates for low-income students, more support is needed in the transition from high school to college, as well as ongoing assistance once on campus, he said. 

 

 

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