How do you level the college playing field for academically qualified, low-income students from school districts like Yonkers? That was the question posed by Wendy Nadel, executive director of Yonkers Partners in Education (YPIE), as she kicked off a discussion April 25 among admissions professionals and college counselors about the best ways to achieve access and success for students who are often the first in their family to go to college.
The admissions professionals, college counselors and other guests gathered at a breakfast organized by YPIE, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting Yonkers high school students on their path to college. The special event, held at the organization’s College Zone on North Broadway in Yonkers, featured a panel of representatives from the nation’s top-performing colleges, as well as invited professionals who represented nearly 10 other top colleges.
Ellen Cutler Levy, YPIE’s senior strategy advisor, who organized the event, said that YPIE realized six years ago that, in order for Yonkers students to learn about top-tier colleges, the organization had to be “very intentional.” It created a database of about 60 colleges within a 600-mile radius of Westchester County, and began forging relationships with college admissions professionals to help give Yonkers students a leg up in the application process.
And it is working. YPIE has seen an increase in admissions to top-tier colleges, and this year alone has seen students admitted to Barnard, Brown, Bucknell, Cornell, Dartmouth, Emory, Hamilton, Harvard, Northwestern, Wesleyan, Williams and Yale, to name a few.
But for too many students from other communities like Yonkers, such colleges may not even be on their radar, and there are multiple hurdles to overcome to get into such schools, never mind succeed there. This results in a shortage of such applicants, known as “under-matching,” and it leaves high-achieving students (many first generation) from urban school districts like Yonkers underrepresented at those colleges, diminishing their college graduation rates and earning potential.
To shed light on – and share solutions for – this persistent problem, the panel focused on recruitment and retention. Led by Jacques Steinberg, an acclaimed author (“The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College”), former New York Times reporter, and recognized expert in college admissions, the panelists described some of the ways they have tailored services to this special population.
The professionals said they encourage recruitment by reaching out more deliberately to students in communities like Yonkers, and to at least letting the students know that they exist. They encouraged students to visit schools to get a better sense of what they are looking for and demonstrate interest, though they acknowledged that is not always possible for students from low-income families. And they urged students and parents to ask many questions and understand the strengths and challenges the various schools present.
From applicants, they seek a variety of traits, but especially look for a willingness to reach outside their comfort zone, as well as a sense of curiosity and willingness to ask questions, they said. They said they are also willing to take into account extracurricular activities that are outside the traditional mainstream of sports and student leadership – for instance, if a student is responsible for caring for his or her siblings after school or has a job -- and urged students to make that known in applications and interviews.
But some of the admissions officers admitted that cost is often a problem for students, stopping them from even applying to certain schools, and eliminating them from contention even before they are able to find out what financial aid and other services are available to them. Some also acknowledged that they still expect students to have demonstrated academic excellence in a rigorous course of instruction – something not always available in inner-city schools.
That is where YPIE has come in. For almost 11 years, the organization has been preparing students beginning in ninth grade for both the academic rigors of college and the life skills required to navigate the challenges that inevitably arise. YPIE College Advisors find best-fit colleges to apply to based on each student’s individual situation, and a designated College Success Manager supports students through the transition to college and during the first two years. The comprehensive, six year continuum of YPIE services ensures students are ready to enroll in college and succeed.
Once students learn about colleges, go through the application process, show that they are knowledgeable about what that school has to offer, and demonstrate along the way their interest in attending, some colleges are offering special programs to those they admit to ensure that those students succeed.
Brittany Lewis, who is the college access coordinator at Franklin & Marshall, said the administration at her school is committed to “breaking down barriers.” They have adopted a Next Generation Initiative, she said, which includes financial aid, a summer college preparation program, and a college house system that is geared toward creating a community and making sure that students don’t “fall through the cracks,” as described by Steinberg, the moderator.
Other colleges said they have created an emergency fund to help students with things like traveling home over holidays or for dealing with family matters, or to apply to graduate school.
Kathryn Timlin, an senior admissions officer at Georgetown, said the elite Washington college created the Georgetown Scholarship Program in 2004 geared toward making college more affordable to first generation students. But administrators soon realized that providing scholarship money is not enough. So the university has steadily built up services involving staff, alumni, and fellow students to provide mentors; help navigating the daily challenges of colleges; emergency funding, and academic supports like tutoring, psychiatric services, and career counseling.
The result, Timlin said, is that the program has a 96.4 percent graduation rate for students in GSP – higher than the overall college average. Now, Timlin said, the hope for the future of the program is that “one day that GSP doesn’t have to exist.”
Steinberg concluded the 90-minute discussion by pointing out that he has written the lead article in the next issue of the Journal of College Admissions, in which he lays out the range of services now available to students like those YPIE serves. And the gamut of services is expanding: One college, he said, has even created a Canine Corps to provide emotional support for students at difficult times, like during final exams.
The event was attended by representatives from Barnard College, Binghamton University, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Colorado College, Connecticut College, The Cooper Union, Franklin & Marshall College, Georgetown University, Haverford College, Skidmore College, Union College and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as YPIE’s college counselors and student mentors, who are on the front lines of helping Yonkers students get into, and succeed at, the best schools based on their abilities and interests.
o find out more about how YPIE serves the students of Yonkers – and to donate money or volunteer – contact Ellen Cutler Levy at firstname.lastname@example.org