What is the Excellence Gap?

“Excellence gap” refers to the disparity in the percent of lower-income versus higher-income students who reach advanced levels of academic performance. The “gap” appears in elementary school and continues as students move through middle school, high school, college and beyond.


High-performing, low-income students who “match” to a selective college graduate at the same rate as their high-income peers.

Overall, high-performing, low-income students are less likely to complete college than even their low-achieving, high-income peers.

Closing the Excellence Gap

America counts 3.4 million high-ability, low-income students in grades K-12.
The Excellence Gap refers to the disparity in the number of these high ability lower-income students who reach advanced levels of academic performance — including college attendance and completion — compared to their higher-income peers.
This “gap” appears in elementary school and continues as students move through middle school, high school, college and beyond.
We know that America’s very smart, low-income students increasingly fall to the margins as they progress through school, and far too many are discouraged from pursuing a college degree, especially at one of our select colleges and universities.
Despite scoring in the top quartile academically, students from the bottom economic quartile:
  • Experience far less academically enriched experiences in high school.
  • One in four (23%) do not take the SAT or ACT exam.
  • Half (56%) do not apply for federal financial aid through the FAFSA.
  • Less than half (49%) took at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course (compared with 71%).
  • Only a third (30%) participated in an academic honor society (versus 51%).
  • Most discouraging — nearly one fourth of all high-performing, low-income students never even apply to college.


Ages and Stages

Early Grades

While data confirms that children born poor arrive at school less prepared, it also tells us that some 80,000 students per grade (K-5) qualify for free or reduced lunch and perform in the top quartile academically.

Decades of research findings underscore how critical of a role the years between birth and middle childhood play in a child’s long-term cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.

Developmental science shows that by age nine, when children have entered middle childhood, they are able to accomplish complex intellectual tasks, provided they have opportunities to build a good foundation in those first eight years.

While the Excellence Gap is only first observable further into elementary school, research and anecdotal evidence suggest its roots are much earlier. A national study of kindergartners in the 2010-11 school year shows that those in poverty scored the lowest in reading.

Data Tells Us:

  • The number of U.S. children living in poor families in 2012 reached 16 million (more than 20 percent), up sharply from the 15 percent child poverty rate in 1970.
  • High-income households spend $8,000 per year more on education and enrichment than do low-income households, a gap that’s nearly tripled since the 1970s. This adds up to a $100,000 spending gap over the course of a child’s early childhood, primary and secondary school career.
  • About 28 percent of American 4-year-olds benefit from state-provided pre-K. But access and quality have declined in recent years reflecting state budget cuts. Eight of the 10 states that do not offer state-funded pre-K have high numbers of rural, poor students.
  • When children born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution get a college degree, their chances of making it to the top nearly quadruple, and their chances of making it out of the bottom increase by more than 50 percent.

Key Factors:

  • Growing Residential Segregation by Income

Low-income children today are twice as likely to live in neighborhoods and communities segregated by income as they were in 1970. As income disparities grow, and as more families seek to live in the best school districts, low-income children further concentrate in schools, making it less likely for high-performing students to get the needed attention as teachers and administrators concentrate on developmental delays and challenges among students struggling to reach the proficiency level.

  • Access to High-Quality Day Care and Preschool

According to National Center for Education Statistics data, only 20 percent of 4-year-olds in poverty can recognize all 26 letters, compared with 37 percent of their peers at or above the poverty level. Along with availability and cost of high-quality day care and preschool, new research shows that the literacy challenge extends to early childhood educators themselves — as many as 1 million state-licensed and nationally-credentialed early-childhood educators are at-risk for functional illiteracy; their reading and writing skills are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.

  • Isolation

For families with access to fewer resources such as libraries, healthcare services, or daycare centers, putting all of the pieces together to prepare their children for school can be very difficult. Those living in rural areas are particularly susceptible, although low-income urban areas lacking proper public transportation often suffer the same fate. New research shows that high-income parents spend more time than low-income parents in literacy activities with their children, especially when it involves “novel” places — settings away from home, school, or care providers. Between birth and age six, children from high-income families spend an average of 1,300 more hours in novel contexts than children from low-income families (Phillips, 2011). Such experiences contribute to the background knowledge considered critical for mastering science and social studies texts in middle school.

  • Food Insecurity and Other Stressors

More young students come to school with poverty-related challenges — ranging from chronic stress and exposure to trauma, to food insecurity — all of which have short- and long-term consequences for their educational trajectories, including the most advanced learners. According to most recent data, at least 48 percent of all American public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (which includes families above the poverty line) — a record high number. Food insecurity has been linked with delayed development, poorer attachment, and learning difficulties in the first two years of life. Long-term poor nourishment can affect a child’s physical development, further undermining other factors.

What Works:

  • Earlier Intervention

The Affordable Care Act in 2010 created the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program (MIECHV), which helps states pay for programs that pair at-risk mothers with trained professionals who visit families’ homes. The creation of this new federal program will support children in the 0–3 age range, a critical period for language development and early literacy skills.

Research shows that lower-income parents are often simply unaware of resources available to them, do not have all of the facts about preparing their children for school, and are not encouraged to do so. Consistent outreach efforts, including parental training, can help dispel myths and connect parents to the right resources.

  • Full Day Kindergarten

Kindergarten is typically overlooked by policymakers, though research shows children benefit from high-quality, full-day kindergarten and kindergarten is the starting point for later rigor. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia statutorily require all school districts to provide publicly funded full-day kindergarten; six states do not require districts to provide kindergarten at all, and the rest require at least a half-day of kindergarten to be provided. Estimates for the percent of children who attend some type of full-day kindergarten range from roughly 58 to 77 percent, but in some cases, the second half of the day may be supplemented by parent tuition payments. In recent years, some states — including Minnesota, Oklahoma, Washington, and Nevada — have started to expand the provision of full-day kindergarten.

  • Better Transition from Pre-K to Formal Education

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services evaluated the Head Start program, which has provided low-income families with comprehensive early childhood education, healthcare and nutrition since 1965 (and expanded in 1981). The department’s study concluded that Head Start improved many cognitive skills. Lessons learned in programs like Head Start are squandered as elementary schools in low-SES areas tend to be weaker. More needs to be done to connect the dots from pre-K through college rather than compartmentalizing the levels in between.

Further Reading and Research:

Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does It Matter?
Barnett, W. Steven and Donald J. Yarosz. NIEER. (2007)

Middle School

Data reveals a 13 point gap in reading scores between low-income, high-performing students and their higher-income peers as they progress through elementary school grades, meaning that lower-income students are less likely to remain a high achiever.

When we look at low-income, high-ability students at the start of formal education and then again on the college graduation stage, we see the importance and challenge of the K-8 years for shaping the future trajectory of these students.

At the start, high-achieving first graders from lower-income families demographically and geographically mirror the population of all U.S. first grade students. Year after year, that picture changes. Those numbers and the potential they represent begin to erode.

Somehow, in the world’s largest national economy, only one in 10 of these low-income students will go on to graduate from college. In contrast, half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25.

Data Tells Us:

  • Low-income students now make up 51 percent of all (K-12) students in the United States
  • Researchers count more than 3.4 million (K-12) students achieving in the top quartile academically come from families earning less than the median income
  • Only 56 percent of lower-income students maintain their status as high achievers in reading by fifth grade, versus 69 percent of higher-income students
  • While 25 percent of high-achieving, lower-income students fall out of the top academic quartile in math in high school, only 16 percent of high-achieving upper income students do so

Key Factors:

  • Outdated Identification

In a changing America, educators have not kept pace in terms of assessment tools or teacher training to identify advanced learners from low-income and culturally diverse families. Once overlooked, the fate of low-income, high-performers can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy because students are then precluded from differentiated instruction at the advanced level and are not provided with resources.

  • Teacher Recruitment and Training

It’s a simple fact that America’s (K-8) school population is changing faster than its pipeline of culturally and economically diverse teachers, and that training for established teachers is inadequate. Teaching for a new American population asks a lot of all teachers. Acquiring both a personal and professional multicultural perspective is challenging, and gaining the added nuance of recognizing diverse expressions of “giftedness” even more so.

  • Gaining Parental Trust

Multiple studies show that sustaining advanced learning across the long span from early childhood into college takes a monumental and coordinated effort involving teachers, mentors, community and youth leaders to build trust with each family. Parents under great economic stress or without language skills can’t be expected to advocate for their high-performing sons or daughters in the same ways as higher-income families.

  • Social/Psychological Issues

Students who are labeled as advanced learners early on often resist the designation for social reasons. They can be isolated and bullied, particularly in middle school, and in contrast, fail to meet the expectations of others because of high-stakes testing. Unable to resolve such disparities, and otherwise unmotivated to do so, some simply withdraw.

What Works:

  • Improved Course Offerings

The growing availability of e-learning opportunities may enable low-income schools to offer advanced courses and guidance for advanced learners in earlier grades. Students who do not take algebra by 8th grade, for example, struggle in successive years with mathematics courses needed for college.

  • Multiple Education Techniques

A wider range of quantitative and qualitative data, including teacher input, can account for factors like creativity that a test may not pick up. Group-specific norming could help alleviate some of the factors above; perhaps the top 10 percent of students in each school get services regardless of their scores on a test. But more assessments also need to be implemented to find the “diamonds in the rough” instead of just those who are already advanced.

  • Parental Outreach

The qualitative data that is too often missing is parents’ assessment of their own children. Navigating the public school system for low-income families frequently remains a labyrinth, so parental advocacy suffers. Parents may instinctively know their child is an advanced learner, but if they don’t get a letter home stating so, they don’t intervene. Schools need to provide parents with better information and access and proactively ask them for their input to aid in better identification.

  • Teacher Accountability and Support

Strong school alternatives for low-income students are characterized by consistently strong school supports and sensible accountability. Supports include opportunities for teachers and school leaders to improve their skills, and a culture in which teachers are expected to demonstrate to their colleagues that they share the collective mission of educating every student well.

Further Reading and Research:

Unlocking Emerging Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students.
Olzewski-Kubilus, Paula and Jane Clarenbach. National Association of Gifted Children.

Mind the (Other) Gap! The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education.
Plucker, Jonathan, Nathan Burroughs, Ruiting Song (2010). Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.
Wyner, Josh, John Bridgeland and John J. Diiulio, Jr. (2008). Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.
Xiang, Yun and Michael Dahlin et. al (2011). Fordham Institute.

High School

While the number of low-income high school students taking at least one AP exam has increased in the decade between 2003-2013, gaps in both participation and performance remain among students from different economic backgrounds.

The Excellence Gap that first truly manifests itself in the middle grades becomes much more significant – and most damaging – in high school, when college readiness must be carefully and purposefully cultivated.

Nationally, there are 60,300 students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who perform among the top 25 percent of all students in reading and math at the beginning of high school. Too many are not challenged with advanced math and science courses. Too many leave high school with lower AP exam rates, lower SAT/ACT scores, and lower GPAs than their more advantaged peers — a reality that influences their choices beyond high school.

While teachers, counselors and parents of higher-income students grow ever more acutely aware of the competition for admission to the most selective colleges, these high-achieving, low-income students often find themselves with scarce support, resources or role models. While their grades and test scores show evidence of the elements that colleges extol — talent, intellect, grit, perseverance — few low-income achievers allow themselves to imagine the same path or possibilities commanding attention in more wealthy districts, better funded high schools and more college-savvy homes.

Data Tells Us:

  • Less than half (49 percent) took at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course, compared with 71 percent of their high-income peers
  • Only 29 percent of high-achieving low-income students take calculus, compared with 42 percent of their high-income peers
  • Only 49 percent of high-achieving low-income students take both chemistry and physics compared with 67 percent of their high-income peers
  • One in four (23 percent) will not take the SAT or ACT exam

At least one study has shown that teacher perception – not actual performance or work quality – plays the largest role in persistent gaps between low- and high-income students at the top of the GPA scale.

Key Factors:

  • Resources

On average, America spends more on high-income students than low-income ones, making it among just three countries worldwide to do so. Because public schools are funded in large part by local taxes, those serving low-income areas are often under-resourced.

  • Course Options and Rigor

Low-income schools consistently lack the academic options of wealthier schools, especially in math and sciences. Some 500,000 American students attend high schools that do not offer a math course as advanced as even Algebra II.

  • Counseling

Low-income students are underserved by high school guidance counselors. High schools serving predominately low-income and minority students have counselor-to-student ratios twice the national average – 1,000 students per counselor versus 470 students per counselor nationally.

  • Standardized Test Preparation

The gap in SAT scores between students from rich and poor families has grown — from a gap of 90 points during the 1980s to 125 points today. An arms race of sorts has fed the private test prep industry, and prices for that help have risen twice as fast as average wages since 2012 tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The large gap in SAT scores indicates that we are failing high-achieving, low-income students by not adequately preparing them academically and specifically to the tests.

What Works:

  • Readiness by Middle Grades

Increasingly, high school principals and advocates for high-achieving, low-income students recognize that the time to intervene is earlier — in the middle grades — to ensure that more low-income students are emerging from middle school ready for advanced high school work.

  • Advanced Placement Courses

Students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school are more likely than their peers to earn college degrees on time, so access to AP courses have become a good measure of how we are serving high-achieving, low-income students. And the news is good: according to the College Board, the number of low-income students taking AP has more than quadrupled over the past decade — but those rates still remain lower than wealthier students.

  • Peer Support and Summer Programs

Isolation can be a major factor in the lives of low-income high achievers. Summer programs can both supplement learning and help build communities of social and emotional support for high school and beyond.

  • Better and Earlier Advising

As noted above, adequate counseling to challenge talented students and steer them toward applying and enrolling in college is lacking. However, success has been demonstrated in specific initiatives like the College Advising Corps, which has held 353,695 one-on-one meetings with students on such issues. Students who met with a Corps advisor are 23 percent more likely to apply to college than other seniors.

Further Reading and Research:

Falling Out of the Lead: Following High Achievers Through High School and Beyond.
Bromberg, Marni and Christina Theokas (2014). The Education Trust.

A Level Playing Field? How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game.
Dahlin, Michael and Beth Tarasawa (2013).

Mind the (Other) Gap! The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education.
Plucker, Jonathan, Nathan Burroughs, and Ruiting Song (2010). Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.
Wyner, Josh, John Bridgeland and John J. Diiulio, Jr. (2008) Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

College Pathways

Despite a long and impressive record of high performance, many low-income students waver at the prospect of college.

Though clearly among the nation’s best and brightest, high-ability students from low-income families are less likely to enroll in college than those from high-income families; less likely to matriculate at an institution with the academic rigor and selectivity that match their academic abilities and accomplishments; less likely to fully engage in campus experiences and enriched learning experiences; and less likely to graduate.

Data Tells Us:

  • 53 percent do not apply to a single college that matches their grades and test scores
  • Only 16 percent enroll in a highly selective four-year college
  • 24 percent enroll in a two-year or less-than-two-year institution
  • 22 percent (more than 13,000 a year) do not enroll in college

High-performing, low-income students who “match” to a selective college graduate at the same rate as their high-income peers.

Key Factors:

  • Identity and Isolation

High-achieving, low-income high school students can easily become isolated, caught between being themselves and belonging easily and naturally with family, friends and community. In the absence of role models, or positive reinforcement, a lot is asked of these students to persist and hold onto their gifts and sense of possibility.

  • Poor Preparation

Faced with lifting large numbers of students to proficiency, many high school teachers and counselors leave high achievers to fend for themselves. These students need guidance from freshman year forward, to steer them toward Advanced Placement (AP) coursework and extracurricular experiences, and to navigate college selection.

  • College Matching

Without knowledge of the complex tuition/aid calculus, students from low-income backgrounds often assume they cannot afford college, especially selective colleges. To complicate matters, selective colleges do a poor job of seeking out such students, especially when they live in remote areas. As a result, very few match their grades/test scores to right-fit colleges — and far too many never apply to any college.

  • Poor Transfer Support

Four-year colleges have done a poor job of transitioning high-achieving students who attend community college toward degree completion. Poor transfer support, arbitrary admissions limits, inequitable financial aid all mean that many high-achieving, low-income students stall at community college.

What Works:

  • Make cost clear

Research shows that if you demystify the tuition/aid equation, low-income high achievers will apply to more selective schools — and succeed.

  • Connect students

Through efforts like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s College Scholarship Program, high-achieving, low-income students find encouragement and make friends with students of similar ability and aspirations.

  • More economic diversity

While many selective colleges and universities have made strides in terms of ethnic diversity, large disparities remain in terms of economic diversity, especially when compared with endowments. Schools must broaden their searches beyond a cluster of nearby low-income areas and identify the best performers far and wide.

  • Cooperation between two- and four-year institutions

Given the success of high-achieving, low-income students at selective colleges, two- and four-year institutions should work together to foster a transfer-friendly environment.

Low-Hanging Opportunity: Fix College Undermatching

Research from Caroline Hoxby of Stanford’s economics department and Christopher Avery from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government explains the issue of college undermatching — which describes how 10,000 or 20,000 of America’s brightest, low-income high-school graduates each year don’t go to a great college not because they can’t afford one but because they don’t realize they should apply.

The data shows that among low-income high school students who perform well on the SAT, only a fraction (8 percent) make good use of their scores by applying to selective colleges. The promising news is that those same students make good on their bet — enrolling in and graduating from selective colleges at the same rate as their high-income peers.

Many people in education want more of this outcome — for low-income kids to defy the odds and succeed at the highest level. What then could be done to help the vast number of low-income high school students who perform well on the SAT (92 percent), but take a path that proves to be far more uncertain.

First, the sobering statistics:

  • More than half — 53 percent of low-income, high-achieving SAT takers — apply to zero schools whose median SAT or ACT scores are similar to their own.
  • Many smart, low-income students apply only to a single unselective school.

Role Models and Geography

A familiar saying about upward mobility in America goes, “you can’t be one unless you see one.”

High-performing, low-income students from larger metro areas appear more likely to see themselves at a selective college, in part because they’re more likely to meet and get to know a teacher who attended a selective college.

This first-person story from an Ivy-league graduate born to a single mom on the South Side of Chicago confirms the data.

In contrast, high-performing, low-income students from smaller school districts and rural areas set lower expectations about where they belong in college.

Colleges tend to look in their own backyard for high-performing, low-income students, which means a triple penalty if you’re born into a poor family, denied a mentor/role model, and living a remote area of the U.S., far from a selective college.

The College Advising Corps trains and deploys 470 peer advisers who help more than 150,000 high-achieving, low-income students apply to schools that match their abilities and thus improve their likelihood of completing college.

Continued financial support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will enable the program to expand the range of schools they consider and provide critical, direct information in the college admissions and financial aid processes. In its first year, the program will aim to identify and serve a nationwide cohort of 8,000-10,000 high-achieving, low-income students.

Further Reading and Research

Breaking Down Walls
Jennifer Giancola, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Davidson, Ph. D. (2015)

Student Aid, Student Behavior, and Educational Attainment.
Baum, Sandy and Saul Schwartz (2014).

Transfer Access to Elite Colleges and Universities of the United States: Threading the Needle of the American Dream. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
Dowd, Alicia C., et al (2006).

The Missing “One-Offs”: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students.
Hoxby, Caroline and Christopher Avery (2013).

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students.
Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. Hoxby, Caroline and Stephanie Turner (2013).

Partnerships That Promote Success: Lessons and Findings from the Evaluation of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative (2014).

Proficiency vs. Advanced Learning

Connecting the Scholarship Dots

While a great deal of attention and resources have been focused on the achievement gap among students, which measures basic proficiency in subjects like math and readings, almost none have been devoted to the Excellence Gap at the highest levels.

Policymakers increasingly see the relationship between connecting very smart, low-income students to brighter futures as a force for the vibrancy of our economy, our nation’s future prosperity, the strength of our global competitiveness, and improving the social mobility of America’s lower-income families. Unleashing the potential of millions of bright young Americans will shape our nation for generations to come.

Connecting the Scholarship Dots

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the College Board, and four other scholarship providers want to connect high-performing , low-income high school students to $180 million in merit aid sooner in the college-search process.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has joined a new partnership with the College Board and four other of the nation’s leading scholarship providers to expand access to nearly $180 million in existing scholarship dollars to low-income and minority students across the country who may not otherwise have been aware they are eligible for scholarship.

“Year after year the potential of thousands of exceptionally promising students is wasted because they lack the resources to go to college,” said Executive Director Harold O. Levy. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awards annual scholarships of up to $40,000 to high-performing students with financial need. By partnering with the College Board, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is able to engage a broader universe of high-achieving, low-income students that have the ability to excel when given the resources to develop their talents.”

Students from the class of 2015 who have taken the College Board’s PSAT/NMSQT, the nation’s largest and most representative pre-college assessment, during high school and opted-in to receive materials from scholarship providers will be the first beneficiaries of this new initiative. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will use this information to identify and expand its outreach efforts to more high-achieving, low-income students than ever before to encourage them to apply to its College Scholarship Program.

What this country needs is not more tests but more opportunities. The 3.8 million students who already take the PSAT/NMSQT will now gain access to nearly $180 million more in scholarships, early enough in their high school careers to change their futures. These partnerships build on our work with National Merit Scholarship Corporation to remove barriers to college and career success for students across the country.

— David Coleman, President and CEO of the College Board

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program is the largest undergraduate scholarship program available to high-achieving high school seniors with financial need who seek to attend the nation’s best four-year colleges and universities. College Scholars receive up to $40,000 per year, college planning support, ongoing advising, and the opportunity to network with the larger Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholar community. The application period is open from early September to early November. Up to 40 College Scholars are selected for this program each year.

The American Indian Graduate Center (AIGC), Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF), Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) are also part of this new initiative.

Click here for more information about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program. More information about the PSAT/NMSQT is available here, and details about the scholarship opportunities offered by the other partner organization are available online at: AIGCAPIASFHSF, andUNCF.

Economic Diversity at Selective High Schools

Some 100 principals of selective public high schools from across the country have formed a new coalition to better recruit, support and advocate for high-achieving, low-income students and close the widening Excellence Gap.

America’s most selective public high schools offer high-performing, low-income students a life-changing opportunity to gain the academic rigor, course offerings, counseling and peer community too often missing in their neighborhood schools.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation recently hosted a national convening of over 100 principals from many of the nation’s top selective public high schools, and from that meeting has emerged a coalition that will advocate on behalf of high-achieving students with financial need.


Todd Mann, executive director of the Magnet Schools of America and the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools, along with Crystal Bonds, president of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools and principal of the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City University of New York’s City College, announced the creation of a new advocacy organization, which will empower principals to raise their voices collectively in support of high-performing, low-income students. The new advocacy group, C.L.A.S.S. (Coalition of Leaders for Advanced Student Success), will include principals from across the nation and will be led by a steering committee of experienced school leaders and educators. Attendees were invited and encouraged to add their voices to this important effort.

Too often, it is assumed that these students will be fine on their own, when that is not the reality.

— Harold O. Levy, Executive Director, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation
This coalition of principals represents the kind of direct, ground level change needed to close the Excellence Gap. It will address a persistent and growing Excellence Gap in the American education system: the nation’s highest-achieving students with financial need are not receiving sufficient access or support to match the performance of their high-income peers.


Cooke Foundation executive director, Harold Levy, told the gathered school leaders: “Too often, it is assumed that these students will be fine on their own, when that is not the reality.” Levy encouraged principals to begin thinking about how their schools approach, evaluate and welcome this demographic of students.

Best practices shared with the audience to better identify, recruit, and prepare high-performing students with financial need for success in selective high schools included steps to improve the talent pipeline from local elementary and middle schools, utilizing distance and online education, and subsidizing exam-prep and bridge programs.


John King, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized the importance of access policies in addition to equitable admissions practices, pointing out that families of limited means may not even be aware how to navigate admission to a selective high school.


The day concluded with an inspirational keynote address from Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science and the Public, founder of the Global Fund for Children, as well as a former student of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. In her speech, Ajmera discussed the opportunities afforded by attending a selective public high school, opportunities that laid the groundwork for her future achievements. She described experiencing a pivotal “moment of obligation,” when she knew she must use the education she received to do something positive in the world.


The summit included a call for grant proposals from schools represented at the convening. Grants of $50,000-$100,000 will be awarded to five to 10 schools that propose innovative ways to improve access, support, and advocacy within their districts for high-achieving students with financial need. Following the grant announcement, representatives from the Cooke Foundation, Gates Millennium Scholarship, Leadership for a Diverse America, the Horatio Alger Association, and the Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Program shared scholarship opportunities and resources.

A panel also answered questions about specific strategies schools can use to better support their high-performing students to identify and apply for competitive scholarships.

Bridging Community and Selective Colleges

Given better advising and financial support, many high-performing, low-income high school students who begin at a community college could transfer and thrive at America’s most selective four-year colleges.

Access to a high-quality four-year degree remains stubbornly out of reach, even for America’s highest-performing, low-income high school graduates.

A recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation report – “Breaking Down Walls: Increasing Access to Four-Year Colleges for High-Achieving Community College Students,” – details the barriers facing transfer students, including a lack of adequate advising, limited financial aid, and confusing credit transfer policies.

Every year in the United States, more than seven million students enroll in community colleges. This group constitutes 45 percent of all postsecondary enrollment. A disproportionate number come from poor families. At present, while the majority of community college students aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree, as few as 12 percent manage to do so.

Costs – real and perceived – drive many choices among even America’s highest-performing, low-income high school graduates. While 44 percent of low-income students enroll in community college after high school, only 15 percent of high-income students do so.

Surprisingly, this income disparity holds true for the brightest students. One in four high school students in the top academic quartile of their class who are from families in the bottom socioeconomic quartile will enroll in a two-year (or less than two-year) college. At the same time, only 10 percent of high-achieving students from families in the top socioeconomic quartile enroll in two-year colleges.

In other words, thousands of bright students with the academic readiness to complete a bachelor’s degree start out at community colleges primarily for financial reasons. This is a crucial component of the larger Excellence Gap facing America.

We do ourselves a disservice as a society by denying gifted students the opportunity to fulfill their potential simply because their academic careers started at a two-year institution. The message for both colleges and education policymakers is clear: where a student began her studies should not ineluctably determine her entire academic career or her life chances.

— Harold O. Levy, Executive Director, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

The Breaking Down Walls report coincides with the White House’s America’s College Promise proposal for tuition-free community college education for responsible students.

“Because community college is an on-ramp to a four-year degree for many, particularly low-income and first-generation college students, the White House proposal would enable more students to qualify for jobs that increasingly require a bachelor’s degree,” says Harold O. Levy, executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “While I applaud the White House proposal, four-year colleges must do their part to facilitate transfer to their campuses.  For example, institutional aid offered to transfer students is often much less than what is offered to freshmen entering the same college or university, making the cost associated with earning a four-year degree still unattainable for too many.”

Levy continues: “A recent Jack Kent Cooke Foundation evaluation of multiple transfer partnerships found that four-year colleges need to make transferring credit easier, eliminating the need for transferring students to repeat classes and spend more money to earn a degree. For the President’s proposal to succeed, colleges and universities must also provide transfer-specific orientation and post-transfer support for students on their campuses. Only in this way will the President’s proposal actually improve the likelihood of students completing their four-year degree and maximizing their college experience.”

“Finally, as a proponent of high-achieving, low-income students, the foundation is concerned that this proposal may inadvertently exacerbate the ‘undermatch’ issue, meaning low-income students who are qualified to enroll in a selective higher education institution with high completion rates may instead choose to enroll in a community college. The Administration’s efforts to improve college advising for low-income and first-generation college-bound students — as evidenced by the recent White House College Opportunity Summit in which we participated — should help mitigate these concerns.”

Certainly by educating underprivileged students and setting them on the path toward upward social mobility, community colleges perform an essential public service. Moreover, they are succeeding at raising aspirations; more than 80 percent of first-time community college students aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree. Only a little more than one in ten will succeed, however.

Skeptics suggest that this low rate of success stems from the transfer students’ poor academic preparation. But that is not true; even the best-prepared and most talented community college students face similar odds.

The Breaking Down Walls report demonstrates, however, that when given proper support, community college students succeed academically even at the country’s elite colleges.

“We do ourselves a disservice as a society by denying gifted students the opportunity to fulfill their potential simply because their academic careers started at a two-year institution,” said Levy. “The message for both colleges and education policymakers is clear: where a student began her studies should not ineluctably determine her entire academic career or her life chances.”

Through its Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has shown that community college students can thrive at the most prestigious four-year institutions. Cooke Scholars have excelled despite coming from less-advantaged backgrounds. Many, in fact, are the first in their families to attend college, and their families often have incomes below the poverty level. Overall, 97 percent of Cooke Scholars earn their bachelor’s degree within three years, including one in ten graduating from the Ivy League.

“Community colleges can no longer be considered the weaklings of academia, as students who attend them often equal or surpass their new peers at four-year colleges and universities,” said Levy. “It is time to remove the barriers that deny too many gifted community college students the opportunity to gain an education commensurate with their abilities and deprive the nation of their potential contribution.”

Making it easier to transfer from community to four-year colleges, the report concludes, would benefit not just students but also these same institutions of higher education. Community colleges must improve transfer advising, and four-year colleges and universities must both expand their recruitment of community college students with successful academic records and better support them once they enroll.