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Elite Colleges Announce New Push to Recruit Lower-Income Students

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More Low Income Students in Elite Colleges American Talent Initiative.jpgThirty of the nation's most selective colleges and universities on Tuesday announced a new initiative to find talented students from lower-income families and enroll them in institutions with high graduation rates.

The founders of the American Talent Initiative represent many of the country's most elite colleges and universities: Yale, Harvard, and Stanford universities; Pomona, Amherst, and Bates colleges; the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. They number only 30 now, but they aim to expand their ranks in the next few years. 

Their goal is to bring a total of 50,000 students from low- and moderate-income families onto the campuses of the 270 institutions with six-year graduation rates of 70 percent or better, and to double down on providing the right supports to ensure those students earn degrees.

"We know that there are a number of low- to moderate-income, high-achieving students with the credentials and the ability to succeed at colleges with the highest graduation rates, yet those students cannot always apply or see those colleges as an option," Carol Quillen, the president of Davidson College in North Carolina, and a member of ATI's steering committee, told Education Week.

"As a country, we need to develop all the talent we have in our society. We are taking it upon ourselves, these colleges and universities, to seek out and enroll these incredibly talented students for the benefit of our country and to make equal educational opportunity a reality."

The project has several parts. One is redoubling outreach efforts to locate promising students from lower-income neighborhoods, and another focuses on eliminating barriers to enrollment, such as ensuring that students are well-informed about their college options, and that they have enough need-based financial aid.

A third piece zeroes in on retention: The members commit to using strategies that are effective in helping students stay in college once they're there, such as monitoring freshmen more carefully in their important first semester and intervening quickly if their attendance lags or their grades are poor. That will require a significant paradigm shift, especially at large universities.

Finding Out What Works

Two organizations, Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, will help lead the work. They will collect data from the member institutions to chart their progress toward the goal of 50,000 students, bring members together for discussion, and provide them with research and "lessons learned" from campuses that have had success in recruiting and retaining lower-income students.

The initiative's first report, due out in January, will profile the work of five institutions that have built track records in expanding access and improving retention of lower-income students: Vassar College, Franklin & Marshall College, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Richmond, and the University of Texas-Austin.

The American Talent Initiative is funded by an initial grant of $1.7 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The foundation sees ATI as a companion project to CollegePoint, which it launched in 2014 to expand the reach of college- and financial-aid advising to high school students with grade-point-averages of 3.5 or higher, high PSAT or college-entrance-exam scores, and family incomes of $80,000 or less.

The new initiative reflects a growing awareness of the role that selective institutions can play in promoting opportunity for students who are often marginalized. The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success launched in 2015 with the aim of reaching underserved students through a new, online application portal, but got off to a somewhat rocky start.

Selective colleges enroll smaller shares of low-income students than do less-competitive ones. Research shows, too, that low-income students disproportionately choose colleges and universities with lower graduation rates, and advocates have pushed selective schools—which tend to graduate greater shares of their students—to take a more active role in bringing highly qualified lower-income students onto campus. 

And there is a big pool of potential candidates to explore, according to researchers Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery. In a 2013 paper for the Brookings Institution, they found that the "vast majority" of high-achieving, low-income students don't apply to any selective college. 


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