Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Top colleges should develop roadmaps for increasing college access and talent

December 18, 2014

Educational opportunity is critical to America’s success. If the best colleges in the country don't find and educate the best students, today’s opportunity gap will translate into tomorrow’s leadership gap.  

And yet, research tells us that, annually, tens of thousands of talented, lower income students don’t apply to the strong colleges for which they’re qualified. Only one in 17 students from families earning less than $35,000 a year, earns a degree from a four-year institution. Only 3 percent of the students in the top 150 schools come from the bottom economic quartile. 

At Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), we have moved decisively to build a comprehensive talent strategy—our Next Generation Initiative—to prepare tomorrow’s leaders and enhance the educational experience for all F&M students. Every college needs approaches that work for them, but perhaps the following actions provide a roadmap for how leading institutions can make demonstrable progress faster:

1. Increase need-based financial aid: We have recruited some of the most talented classes in our history after more than doubling the need-based financial aid provided to each first-year class, from $6 million for the Class of 2012 to $13 million for the Class of 2018.

2. Build a bridge between higher education and successful K-12 educators: We work with schools, networks, and access programs across America, including KIPP, Cristo Rey, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, the Posse Foundation, College Match, the College Advising Corps, and the School District of Lancaster to find talent and encourage students to expand their college options. Our summer program, F&M College Prep, enrolls more than 70 students annually from public and charter school networks nationwide that educate students historically underrepresented at highly selective institutions. More than 93 percent of participants have matriculated at four-year colleges and universities including Harvard, Pomona, Northwestern, Georgetown, F&M, UCLA, Bucknell, and UC-Berkeley. 

3. Support students when they matriculate: Our Senior Associate Dean for Planning and Analysis of Student Outcomes helps to ensure that we are responding to students' needs and are helping our partners prepare students for college. We have also developed innovative faculty-mentored cohorts of first-generation students who meet regularly to support each other’s goals and success strategies. 

This talent strategy has worked for F&M and the data speaks for itself.

The average SAT scores of our first-year class are higher since 2009, and F&M has increased its selectivity. Students receiving need-based aid at F&M graduate at the same rate as, and with higher average GPAs than, the total student body.

First-generation college students in the Class of 2016 retained from the first to second year at a rate of 96 percent compared to 92 percent for the class, and achieved the same B average as the class. And the lowest-income students—those eligible for Pell Grants—retained at 98 percent and also achieved a B average.

There is a vast pool of talent in America’s low- and moderate-income communities, and given the chance, the students will succeed at top colleges. Recruiting them actively and building robust need-based aid budgets is smart for leading institutions—and the country as a whole.

View snapshots of otherinstitutions undertaking transformational change that are leading to noticeable results for students.

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