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Franklin and Marshall program offers a window into colleges' bid to attract low-income students

Sixty-nine high achieving students from lower-income families spent three weeks taking classes and living together at Franklin and Marshall College in a program designed to find and nurture talented students from modest means.

Students attending Franklin and Marshall’s college prep summer program review their projects depicting their life experiences.
Students attending Franklin and Marshall’s college prep summer program review their projects depicting their life experiences.Read moreBradley C. Bower

LANCASTER — Caden Pensak never liked writing poetry. Now, he loves it, thanks to the infectious enthusiasm of his summer-program professor at Franklin and Marshall College.

"Having a passionate teacher is all the world to a student," said Pensak, 17, a rising senior at Huntington Area High School in central Pennsylvania.

Pensak said he has been in schools where he wasn't inspired. He's attended 26 since kindergarten, as his family moved for what he described as economic, family and job reasons.

For his final project at F&M, he and Nhi Do, a senior at McCaskey High in Lancaster, penned and performed a poem about the pitfalls of public education.

"Constantly saying, 'Equal Education,' under a conspicuous guise/ Simply because they cannot open their eyes," the shirt-and-tie clad Pensak thundered one afternoon last month in an F&M auditorium.

Pensak is among 69 high-achieving students from low- or moderate-income families nationwide who spent three weeks taking classes and living together at F&M, a selective liberal arts college in Lancaster.

Its College Prep program is part of a larger effort by F&M and its president, Daniel R. Porterfield, to find and nurture talented students who come from modest means and are underrepresented at the nation's best colleges.

Many are the first in their families to attend college, lack the guidance counseling and other resources that might make them consider these schools, and simply don't know about available aid, Porterfield said.

"My conviction is that all across this country there are hundreds of thousands of young people who could succeed at top colleges and would enhance the education of every student in those colleges," he said. "But it's incumbent upon higher education to find them, to fund them, to educate them and to launch them."

Porterfield has made searching out such students a hallmark of his six-year presidency, and in December he took the effort to a national stage. He is co-leading the American Talent Initiative, a project aimed at recruiting 50,000 talented students from low- and moderate-income families to the nation's top 270 colleges.

Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, Dickinson, Lafayette, Lehigh, and Rutgers are among colleges that are participating.

"A lot of institutions do believe there is talent they should be enrolling," said Porterfield, a Rhodes scholar and English professor who came to F&M from Georgetown University, "and they want to work together with other schools to learn how to do it best."

Porterfield has had success. Since he arrived and started the summer program in 2011, the percentage of low-income F&M students — as measured by those who receive federal financial aid through Pell Grants — has grown. Among the fall 2010 freshman class, 13 percent received federal Pell Grants. This fall, it will be nearly 21 percent, above the average for selective private liberal arts colleges in the region. As recently as 2008, only 5 percent were Pell Grant recipients.

And after arriving, the students thrive: Graduation, grade point average, and retention rates for students with Pell Grants are comparable to or better than those of all students, Porterfield said.

In the most recent senior class, 29 percent of Pell Grant recipients at F&M graduated summa, magna or cum laude, compared with 28 percent of the overall class, he said.

The summer prep program has proven to be a pipeline. In the last two years, 24 attendees ended up enrolling at F&M; 20 get Pell Grants.

Those cover only a small share of F&M's tuition, fees and room and board — which this year top $67,000 — but the college also provides substantial aid for needy students.

As a byproduct, F&M's student body has become more racially and ethnically diverse. In 2010, three of every four incoming freshmen were white, while 3 percent were African American and 6 percent Hispanic. This fall, 57 percent are white, 7 percent African American, and 12 percent Hispanic.

Porterfield says his intent is to find "talent," regardless of race. Still, this year's summer prep class was diverse: More than two-thirds identified as black or Hispanic.

Students apply to the program and are chosen based on family income and academics. F&M donors cover the program's $350,000 cost; students live in residence halls, take field trips together, and receive a $500 stipend.

They choose from among a half-dozen courses, with offerings such as a psychology class, the Nature of Hope, and a math course, the Shape of Space. At the end, students shared their poems, performed skits they had written, and gave reports on subjects they studied.

Porterfield said 95 percent who attend the program go on to college, some at elite institutions including Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Evan Walsh, 16, of Memphis, a charter school student whose guidance counselor recommended him for the program, said he "loved" that F&M searches out high-achieving, lower-income minority students.

"Coming from the South," said Walsh, who is black, "to see that a predominantly white institution wants me was eye-opening and different."

Others said the program helped prepare them for the transition to college.

"This program just made me very calm about it," said Jose Antonio Pagan, 17, a rising senior at Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia.

Pagan said he thought college would be hard, but because he was interested in the material, the F&M program "made it so much easier."

Pagan, a straight-A student who hopes to become a psychologist, would be the first in his family to attend college. The son of a car dealership employee and health insurance research analyst, Pagan said F&M is high on his list.

Pensak plans to apply to F&M, too, and Harvard.

He lives with his father, a carpenter, and he also would be the first in his family to attend. He plans to major in chemistry or chemical engineering.

Although many might regard Pensak's rotation through so many schools as a challenge, he emphasized the positive: "It boosted my social skills."