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Top colleges look to enroll more low-income students

Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster is helping to lead a new national effort aimed at recruiting 50,000 talented students from low- and moderate-income families to the nation's top 270 colleges.

Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.Read moreFranklin & Marshall College

Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster is helping to lead a new national effort aimed at recruiting 50,000 talented students from low- and moderate-income families to the nation's top 270 colleges.

Currently, 430,000 low-income students as measured by those who receive federal Pell grants attend the top schools, which have six-year graduation rates consistently above 70 percent.

Under the American Talent Initiative, that number would rise to 480,000 by 2025, nearly a 12 percent increase.

The initiative, announced Tuesday, includes a core group of 30 public and private colleges, including four Ivy League schools - Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth - and other heavy hitters, such as Duke and Stanford. Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is part of the effort, as well as several state flagship universities, including Ohio State and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and smaller private colleges, such as Amherst and Vassar.

The colleges will work together at recruiting and graduating students and sharing information on efforts that work, said Daniel R. Porterfield, president of F&M, who was honored at the White House this year for his work on increasing college opportunity for students from low-income families.

The colleges will explore how best to provide financial aid to the students and help them succeed.

"It's really about strengthening the whole of college opportunity, building a much stronger bridge between high schools and the top-performing colleges," Porterfield said. "We need to provide a ladder for students to pursue the strongest opportunities."

High-achieving, lower-income students fare better at top colleges than at schools with lower graduation rates, he said. But each year, at least 12,500 lower-income high school seniors with SAT scores in the top 10 percent and a 3.5 GPA or higher do not enroll at such schools.

Many of the students lack guidance counseling and other resources that would direct them to these schools, he said. And some simply don't know about aid packages that would allow them to afford the colleges, he added.

Porterfield is among three college presidents who put the effort together. The others are Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College in North Carolina, and Michael Drake, president of Ohio State. Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton, and Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, also have joined the steering committee, Porterfield said.

The initiative will receive funding including an initial grant of $1.7 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies and will be coordinated by two nonprofits, the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, Porterfield said.

The new effort builds on a program that Bloomberg Philanthropies helped to launch in 2014 called College Point, which provides low-income students with free guidance counseling. That effort involved F&M, Davidson, the College Board, and other nonprofits.

Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that helps students into and through college, likes the effort. She said Futures students thrive at colleges like F&M and Lehigh.

"It's understanding what you need to do to help them graduate because the needs can be so significant," she said.

Elite colleges have long been criticized for not having enough students from less affluent backgrounds. A recent study by Brandeis University found that the University of Pennsylvania lacked socio-economic diversity even though it offers a no-loan, all-grant financial aid policy and has tried to recruit talented lower-income students.

The 30 colleges in the American Talent Initiative were selected based on work they have done to reach out to promising low-income students, Porterfield said. He expects others will join after the first year. Among local colleges that would be eligible based on graduation rates are Rowan, Rutgers in New Brunswick, Bryn Mawr, Bucknell, Dickinson, Gettysburg, Haverford, Lafayette, Moravian, Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania State in State College, St. Joseph's, Susquehanna, Swarthmore, Penn, Ursinus, and Villanova.

"This is a unique opportunity for a group of institutions to band together to collaborate and partner with one another in order to reach out to historically underrepresented populations," said Bruce Bunnick, interim vice provost for undergraduate admissions at Lehigh.

About 16 percent of students receive Pell grants at Lehigh. He said he would like to see that increase to about 20 percent.

Under Porterfield, F&M has tripled its percentage of Pell Grant students to 19 percent. Their retention rate is over 90 percent and their graduation rate the same as that of the student body as a whole - 87 percent, he said.

"The students are thriving and they're having success after college," he said.

Porterfield cited Sheldon Ruby, who recently received the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship. Ruby, a government and history major from Bedford County, Pa., will receive about $95,000 in tuition, fees, and other benefits from the U.S. Department of State and serve in an embassy-based internship overseas.

"This country has got a stocked reservoir of such kids," he said.

F&M has a 25-member team in cities and rural areas of Pennsylvania specifically charged with scouting talented underprivileged students and providing college advising.

Through the effort, F&M has increased ethnic and racial diversity. But the goal, he said, is aimed at talent.

"Whatever their ethnic background," he said, "they're here because of their talent, and that's an empowering message."