Progress made in opening college to the poor

CORNWALL — The disparity between low-income students and middle- and high-income students progressing to college is growing wider, according to Rick Dalton, founder, president and CEO of the Cornwall-based nonprofit College For Every Student, of CFES.
Fortunately, a University of Michigan study released last month is proving that the organization’s efforts to get underserved students to college is working.
The empirical data was already there, said Dalton: Each year, 96 percent of the 2,500 high school seniors that the program has worked with go on to college. These numbers, he said, are significant because the organization targets a demographic that typically has a very low rate of college matriculation. Dalton estimated that 95 percent of the 15,000 students that CFES works with are first-generation college students living at or below the poverty level.
But last year, the organization had the opportunity to partner with professor Edward St. John, a notable scholar in higher education at the University of Michigan. Dalton said the partnership has helped CFES find out what it is doing right and what it could improve upon.
“The evaluation piece is very important for us — we’re always looking to how we can become better,” he said.
Currently, CFES runs programs in rural and urban schools in 22 states. Programs focus on the organization’s three core practices: leadership through service, which gets students doing service projects in their communities; mentoring, which teams up younger students with older ones; and pathways to college, which introduces younger students to college students, faculty and college life, and provides guidance with the financial aid processes.
Doctoral students from the University of Michigan spent this past spring looking at CFES programs in five rural schools, and will undertake another study of five urban schools in the upcoming months.
According to “College For Every Student: A Study of Academic Capital Formation in Exemplary Rural Schools,” students who participated in the program received strong social support networks that encouraged college preparation, positive reinforcement about the benefits of a college education, guidance in financial aid issues, and overall “provided a foundation for educational uplift for students and families within rural communities.”
The study also recommended that CFES enhance its outreach to families, especially when it comes to navigating the financial aid process.
Dalton said that CFES partners with schools where the administration is interested and where funding is available — from corporations, individuals, schools and government entities.
And though CFES no longer works with local schools — the Freeman Foundation, which supported work in Addison County, is now supporting the organization’s work in Hawaii — Middlebury College students are active in volunteering with students from three schools in the Adirondacks where CFES is active.
Ben Weitz is the president of the Middlebury College Mentoring Club, which works with CFES. He and the more than 20 students who work with CFES coordinate a series of visits from those schools to the campus throughout the year.
“It’s exciting to see the impact that visits to Middlebury College and group workshops can have,” said Weitz, a senior.
The high school students who come across Lake Champlain several times each year are from areas including Crown Point and Ticonderoga, N.Y. Recently, Weitz said, one of the workshops for the high school students was on using college libraries and writing research papers.
And on a recent visit, high school students also brought 10 of the third-graders they were mentoring, giving those students an early glance at college life.
Several of the college’s athletic teams, including the Panther men’s hockey teams and the women’s basketball team, are also involved in mentoring students, and Dalton said that enlisting athletes as mentors is one of the fixtures of his organization. To him, the structure doesn’t just give the younger students strong role models, the setup is mutually beneficial.
“The universities want more than young people who are going to win athletic events — they want people who will be good citizens and community leaders,” said Dalton.
And CFES extends the mentoring opportunities to high school students, who mentor elementary and middle school students in the programs.
Dalton said that while CFES is only one of 200 nonprofits that work on education on a national level, it is unique in both its mentorship structure and its focus on both urban and rural schools. And while he admitted the organization had its limits, he said he hopes to see more programs like CFES.
“We are not going to become an organization that serves a million students,” Dalton said. “We want to be a beacon program, to help others.”
Dalton said that 20 years ago — when he founded the organization — the United States was first in the world for the percentage of adults with college and postsecondary degrees. A recent College Board report found that the country has fallen to 12th.
“The gap between high and low is widening every year,” said Dalton.
And ultimately, it comes down to a workforce problem. He said that in 10 years, there will be 123 million high-skilled jobs in the country that need filling. But, he said, “there will be fewer than 50 million Americans to fill those jobs, because they don’t have the training.”
It is clear where those students need to come from, but with a young low-income population in the country that is 12 times less likely to go to and graduate from college as young people with families in the middle and upper income brackets, it’s not an easy task to tackle.
“It’s not a Vermont issue or a New York City issue or a North Dakota issue, it’s a national issue. And the truth is, it’s a global issue,” said Dalton.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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