Long Read: Narrowing the Excellence Gap

Yesterday our vice president of programs, Emily Froimson, released a statement commending the White House’s initiative to improve college access for low-income students and emphasizing the need for multi-faceted commitments to improving postsecondary outcomes for low-income students. As she noted, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is committed to narrowing what has become a profound and growing excellence gap in this country.

As Ms. Froimson stated, we cannot continue to ignore a deep and diverse pool of talented people who could make valuable and lasting contributions to the life and livelihood of our nation. High-achieving, low-income students need support to ensure that they thrive in school and beyond.

This is why we provide many scholarship programs for high-achieving, low-income high school, college, and graduate students that are some of the most generous in the nation—together serving nearly 800 students this year. Of these programs, three are specifically focused on increasing access to and the success of high-achieving, low-income students at top colleges and universities. They do this both by providing generous financial support and by offering advising and services that prepare students for and/or help them with the transition to and through their education at those institutions.

  • Our Young Scholars Program is a personalized scholarship and educational support program that provides recipients with comprehensive educational advising from an on-staff adviser as well as financial support from the 8th grade through high school to ensure that Young Scholars have access to a stimulating and rigorous curriculum in high school and engage in meaningful, high-quality after school and summer experiences. Our educational advisers counsel our Young Scholars on how to prepare for, apply to, select, pay for, and navigate a college that is the best fit.
  • Our College Scholarship Program is an undergraduate scholarship program which provides high school seniors with generous financial assistance for up to four years of college, college planning support, and ongoing advising. This year, the Foundation will select a cohort of approximately 80 new students to receive scholarships of up to $30,000 per year to complete a bachelor’s degree.
  • Our Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship is the largest private scholarship in the nation for community college transfer students who plan to transfer to top four-year colleges or universities. The Foundation will select a new cohort of about 75 students to receive scholarships of up to $30,000 a year.

In the more than a decade since our inception, the Foundation has awarded $120 million in more than 2,000 scholarships and $76 million in grants to organizations that support our mission, serving students at the elementary school through graduate school levels. Though primarily a scholarship provider, the Foundation also identifies and invests a portion of funding in strategic grant initiatives to expand educational opportunities throughout the United States. The Foundation partners with educational leaders who share our commitment to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need, and, occasionally, we fund research that enables practitioners, parents, schools, and communities to better support such students in achieving their full potential.

For example, the Foundation incubated the now nationally recognized National College Advising Corps beginning in 2005 in order to increase college enrollment significantly among low-income students who have the potential to excel in higher education but need extra support in selecting and understanding how to pay for the most rigorous colleges available. The program recruits and trains recent college graduates to serve as advisers in high schools nationwide.

The National College Advising Corps has grown from a university supported organization (until recently housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) with 14 college advisers into a national, award-winning, independent 501(c)(3) organization. It currently retains 375 advisers serving 126,900 students in 423 high schools across 14 states. Since its inception, the Foundation has invested more than $13 million in the program. We continue to fund the National College Advising Corps’ efforts to lead, develop, and evaluate college undermatching initiatives, a dilemma where high-achieving, low-income students are not applying to the selective colleges that match their abilities.

The Foundation’s Community College Transfer Initiative, launched in 2005, is designed to help high-achieving community college students earn bachelors’ degrees at top colleges and universities nationwide. The Foundation has invested roughly $9 million to develop targeted programs at highly-selective four-year institutions. Through this initiative, the Foundation supports a cadre of selective colleges and universities and their community college partners who are committed to developing and supporting programs to improve access for high-achieving, low-income community college transfer students.

The Foundation’s other grant initiatives fund organizations that seek to expand opportunities and to provide low-income elementary, middle, and high school students with the tools needed to excel. Through academic achievement grants, we support nonprofit organizations that provide access to summer academic enrichment programs for high-achieving low-income students entering grades 6 through 12, work to increase enrollment of high ability students in Advanced Placement courses, and support exceptional students with learning differences. The Talent Development Award recognizes exemplary practices that are transforming high-potential elementary and middle school students into high achievers, with particular attention to economically disadvantaged students. Our Widening the Stage grant partners expand access to advanced music instruction and performance education for talented young musicians, ages 8-18, from low-income backgrounds at community music schools, pre-conservatories, and summer music programs. Through the classical music radio program, From the Top, the Foundation provides 20 outstanding young musicians who demonstrate financial need with a $10,000 Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award to advance their artistic development and education. And our Good Neighbor Grants program identifies and strengthens ties with youth-serving nonprofit organizations in the Northern Virginia, metropolitan Washington, DC, and Maryland areas to help students with significant financial need reach their fullest potential through education.

If you have read this far, it should be clear that, as Ms. Froimson noted, the Foundation embraces a multi-faceted approach to advancing the education of low-income students. As diverse as our efforts are, we have paid particular attention to combating the fallacy that high-achieving, low-income students are fine on their own and don’t need extra support. Research, as Ms. Froimson also pointed out in her statement yesterday, shows that not only are high-achieving, low-income students less like apply to or enroll in highly competitive colleges or even complete college than their low-achieving, high-income peers, they are also less likely to pursue rigorous coursework, score highly on standardized achievement tests, and have access to high-achieving peer groups. And even among gifted students there is a persistent excellence gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. It only widens as students progress through primary and secondary education.

As our nation thinks about ways to ensure that all of our students are being challenged academically and are prepared for, have access to, and will succeed in college, we must look at approaches that will offer the necessary supports and services to high-achieving, low-income students and higher poverty schools to close that excellence gap.  Let’s not waste the talents and potential of some of our brightest minds. The United States will be the poorer for it if we do.

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