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'My dad teared up. It was the first time I saw him get emotional.' – Selina Lopez, on telling her parents that she had been accepted as a Covenant Scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The Covenant, started in 2003, ensures that low-income students not only can attend but are able to graduate free of debt.
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The push to help 50,000 more low-income students get degrees

paths to progress

The American Talent Initiative, a collaboration of 30 colleges and universities, announced its goal to enroll 480,000 low-income students by 2025, up from 430,000 today.

On paper, Jorge Salcedo looked like a great candidate for a highly selective college. But, like many of his high school friends in Fishers, Ind., he assumed he’d be attending the local community college. That’s what his Mexican-immigrant parents could afford.

In his junior year of high school, his counselor suggested he apply for a college-prep program. That, plus the dedicated help of a free coach from CollegePoint, a service for talented low-income students, led him to the University of Chicago, all-expenses paid – including rental textbooks, food, and stipends for summer internships.

He’s keenly aware that his trajectory in life could now be very different. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s a possibility,” he says of peers who have little wealth or are the first in their family to consider attending college.

What he calls “a lot” is actually an estimated 12,500 students a year who could qualify for admission to highly selective institutions but need financial and counseling support. That’s according to the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a collaboration of 30 public and private colleges and universities where low-income students graduate at high rates. These schools want to push themselves and peer institutions to enroll more of these students, and to scale up the most effective strategies that foster their success.

“If we're serious about promoting social mobility in America, we need to ensure that every qualified high school student in the US has an opportunity to attend college,” said Michael Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg Philanthropies announced ATI last week and also supports CollegePoint.

About 430,000 low-income students currently attend the 270 competitive institutions where more than 70 percent of students graduate within six years. ATI’s goal is to grow that number to 480,000 by 2025.

Selective colleges “are much more cognizant of the high-performing low-income kids. It’s an extraordinary moment,” says Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which offers scholarships and advocates on behalf of low-income students.

The sense of urgency can be seen in a host of actions taken by colleges, philanthropists, and lawmakers in recent months:

  • The bipartisan ASPIRE Act would require colleges in the bottom 5 percent for low-income enrollment to improve their numbers or pay a fee to participate in the federal college loan program. Those fees would support completion initiatives at schools that do enroll sufficient numbers of such students. Sens. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware and Johnny Isakson (R) of Georgia proposed it in September.
  • This fall, dozens of colleges began accepting an application developed by The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a group of colleges and universities committed to reaching out to low-income and first-generation students.
  • Columbia University’s Teachers College, with a grant from the Cooke Foundation, will be introducing an affordable online course and certificate for guidance counselors to learn effective college advising, Mr. Levy says. Currently, because of heavy caseloads and other constraints in school districts, there are places where “untrained counselors are potentially committing malpractice, to the detriment of kids who have no place else to turn,” he says.
  • In February, Princeton University announced it would start taking transfer students again in 2018 (which it hasn’t done since 1990), “as a way to attract students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, such as military veterans and students from low-income backgrounds,” a statement noted.
  • The US Department of Education is launching an experiment at 51 colleges and universities to see which financial counseling strategies are most effective in improving students’ borrowing decisions, academic progress, and ability to repay loans.

ATI will highlight promising practices at campuses ranging from Amherst College in Massachusetts to the University of Richmond in Virginia, and help scale up what works.

Even if federal or state policies aren’t aimed at boosting financial aid in the coming years, there’s reason to be hopeful, because “some of the best efforts and most progress have happened at the least resourced institutions,” says Martin Kurzweil, director of educational transformation at Ithaka S+R, a partner in ATI, along with the Aspen Institute.

Mr. Salcedo wasn’t looking for a brand name or a place with Division I sports, but for “a place where hard work would convert directly into opportunity,” he says. His CollegePoint adviser worked with him over the phone into the night on his college essays. “It was a game-changer. It was the first time I felt like somebody truly cared about me getting into a college that would give me the opportunity I wanted to have,” he says.

Ten weeks into his college experience, he’s thinking about majoring in neuroscience, earning both an MD and a PhD, and then using his talents in neighborhoods where people have a lot of health problems.

“If you have the power to change the world and are being given a lot of tools … it’s a waste not to want to do something great and perhaps help people in a situation similar to the one you came from,” he says.

Schools in the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success have made 300 recruiting visits to low-resourced high schools on a list provided by first lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, which encourages all students to pursue some form of education beyond high school.

The University of Florida, which is part of the coalition, this fall became the first to use the coalition's new application exclusively for undergraduate admissions. The number of applicants went up by 16 percent, and the number of low-income fee waiver applications went up by 153 percent, to about 8,000, says Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management.

Students seemed able to work through the system on their own, and did not call for a lot of assistance, she says. And in the future, features such as a virtual “locker,” where students can store evidence of their achievements, should open up innovative ways for colleges to learn more about their increasingly diverse applicant pool.

Mr. Levy says that when he led New York City schools, he used to think poor kids who were really smart could write their own ticket to college. He found that too often, they were ignored.

If that continues, it’s a detriment to the nation, he says, because “the creatives who invent new businesses are often those who started out scrappy and are trying to change the world.”