Cooke Foundation Announces Five Finalists for $1 Million Prize

JKCF_Cooke Prize_Logo1.jpgFive universities – Brown University; Rice University; Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – are finalists for the $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence.

The prize is the largest award in the nation recognizing a college making strides in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to successful graduation. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will select one of the universities to receive the prize in May, Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy said in announcing the finalists.

A study last year by the Cooke Foundation found that only 3 percent of students at top colleges across the nation come from the poorest 25 percent of families, while 72 percent come from the wealthiest 25 percent of families. 

“The Cooke Prize competition focuses attention on colleges and universities that are leaders in opening their doors wider to outstanding low-income students,” Levy said. “We want other schools to learn from the successful strategies of our finalists, so they can also admit and graduate more students based on academic merit rather than family income. This is vital to creating the educated workforce America requires and to provide equal college access by leveraging resources to recruit, support, and successfully graduate low-income students.”

This is the third year the Cooke Prize is being awarded. Previously, Vassar College received the prize in 2015 and Amherst College received it in 2016.

The finalists demonstrated thoughtful strategies as exhibited by the depth and breadth of programs on their campuses to ensure equity of experience for low-income students from admission through graduation.

Brown University, a private university in Providence, Rhode Island, has about 6,600 undergraduate and 2,200 graduate students. Of the university’s aided undergraduate students, 34 percent are low-income (family income below $60,000), and 16 percent are eligible to receive federal Pell Grants, which go to low-income students. Financial aid packages for most students from families earning below $100,000 annually do not include loans. Also, families with incomes below $60,000 and minimal assets are not expected to make a contribution to the cost of their student’s attendance. In addition to covering tuition, fees and room and board, university scholarships are available for low-income students for health insurance, financial support for meals for those who remain on campus when the university is closed, and for emergency situations. Brown recently opened a First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center to help students transition to and succeed on campus. The university partners with many organizations to increase enrollment of low-income students and doubled the number of community-based organizations it visited last fall. It operates summer pre-college programs up to seven weeks long and provided scholarships to 581 low-income high school students to attend last summer. 

Rice University, a private university in Houston, has nearly 3,900 undergraduate and 2,900 graduate students. Rice meets 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need. Students with family incomes below $80,000 are not required to take out loans. In the past three years, 15 to 16 percent of all Rice students from the U.S. have received federal Pell Grants. The university takes into account hardships that low-income students have faced when considering admission. Rice also provides low-income students with: comprehensive academic and social support services from the time they are admitted until they graduate; summer research positions with Rice faculty; stipends for unpaid or low-paying summer internships; a six-week summer bridge program and continuing mentoring for those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields; health insurance coverage for those who need it; assistance for students facing food insecurity; and other programs tailored to their needs. In addition, Rice operates programs in Houston to help prepare young low-income students for college.       

Stanford University, a private university in California’s Silicon Valley, has about 7,000 undergraduate and 9,300 graduate students. Students from families with annual incomes of less than $125,000 are not charged tuition, and those from families earning less than $65,000 are also not charged for room and board. Ten percent of Stanford students come from families earning less than $65,000 a year. The university runs a national outreach program to recruit low-income students, including a program that brings high school counselors from low-income communities to the university. Admission officers devote 25 percent of their travel to visiting schools with large numbers of low-income students. In addition, Stanford operates a Diversity and First Generation Office, along with a Transfer Advising Program, to provide services that help low-income students succeed. Free summer bridge programs, lasting up to four weeks, are offered to low-income and first-generation incoming freshmen to help them adjust to life at the university. Stanford also provides scholarships for low-income students to participate in summer research and internships programs.  

The University of California, Berkeley, a public university, has an enrollment of more than 29,000 undergraduate and nearly 11,000 graduate students. Among last year’s entering freshmen, 20 percent came from families with annual incomes below $50,000.  More than 65 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid and more than 30 percent are eligible for Pell Grants. When determining admission, Berkeley takes into account the context in which high school students have excelled, including overcoming hardships while demonstrating academic achievement. At the core of the university’s equity and access efforts are symbiotic programs to help holistically develop students as early as K-12 and through community college and their time at Berkeley. Each year the campus provides outreach and pre-college programs to more than 71,000 low-income and first-generation students in K-12 schools and serves nearly 10,000 families and educators. The university works with over 70 community colleges to help prepare low-income and first-generation students to be competitive for admission to Berkeley and other highly selective four-year institutions, and through the Transfer Alliance Project the rate of admission to Berkeley for transfer students has tripled.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a public university, has about 18,500 undergraduate and nearly 11,000 graduate students. The university provides low-debt, full-need student financial aid. It awards 93 percent of financial aid based on need, and 44 percent of students get such aid. Financial aid is available for travel, health insurance, books and supplies, and personal expenses, in addition to tuition, fees, room and board. The university demonstrates its commitment to debt-free financial aid for the lowest-income students through its Carolina Covenant program, among others. About 22 percent of undergraduates are eligible for Pell Grants. The university operates outreach programs to low-income middle and high school students, bringing them to its campus to familiarize them with college life. Its Carolina College Advising Corps serves 23 percent of low-income public high school students in the state, employing 51 recent UNC Chapel Hill graduates as advisers to help high school seniors identify and apply to colleges. The university’s Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program partners with community colleges to guarantee admission to high-achieving, low-income transfer students and provide financial aid packages with little or no student debt.


The Cooke Foundation is dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. Since 2000, the foundation has provided over $152 million in scholarships to nearly 2,200 students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive counseling and other support services. The foundation has also awarded over $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.