Education loses champion for low-income students
Getting named president of the prestigious Aspen Institute is a huge honor, properly bestowed last month on Franklin & Marshall College President Dan Porterfield. Good for both Aspen and Porterfield.
But the appointment raises a touchy question. Porterfield has led the national push to open college doors to high-achieving, low-income students from his campus in Lancaster, Pa. Will that momentum continue, especially with the Trump administration building new roadblocks?
Let’s start off by explaining what Porterfield did there.
Porterfield made Franklin & Marshall a national proving ground for recruiting poor/minority students and ensuring their success. He says it wasn’t that hard because there’s abundant student talent in every zip code.
Porterfield pioneered a shift away from so-called “merit aid,” which colleges use to lure high-income students (which helps push up their published college comparison rankings). “Money spent on price-discounting, on merit aid, wasn’t leading to attracting strong students,” said Porterfield. “Good students, yes, but not near as economically diverse and inclusive as we could be, and as a result, the talent pool wasn’t as deep as it could be. The shift to need-based aid was a good thing.”
That may sound logical, but it’s a different strategy from many colleges, which invest their dollars in ever-fancier student unions, sports facilities and “merit aid” to boost attractiveness among those who can pay more tuition.
In 2011, Porterfield’s first year, F&M launched an innovative STEM student recruitment program with the Posse Foundation, partnerships with the KIPP and Cristo Rey schools, and a three-week summer college prep program for low-income students entering their senior year of high school. The students live at the college, take seminar-like courses with faculty and learn about college from first generation undergraduates.
That gives these students “college knowledge,” Porterfield said. It also gives the students, many of whom grew up in tough urban environments, a sense that they can thrive on a campus far from their homes.
And it’s only the beginning. In 2017 at F&M, Pell Grant recipients were over-represented among those receiving high Latin honors at graduation and won prestigious Rangel, Mitchell and Fulbright Scholarships. Some 98% are working or studying full time six months after graduation.
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While researching my project on charter school graduates, I discovered a “secret” known mostly to college advisers at the charter networks: If you can land a first-generation college goer at a place like Franklin & Marshall, the odds of that student earning a bachelor’s degree within six years are in the mid-90% range. That’s huge.
F&M isn’t alone here. Others favored by college advisers for first-generation college students include: Oberlin College in Ohio, Carlton College in Minnesota, Albion College in Michigan, Holy Cross College in Indiana, Gettysburg College and Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Grinnell College in Iowa.
There are others, but not nearly enough. For these colleges, almost all of them rural and most with a tradition of filling their freshmen classes with white students from well-off families, this is a huge departure. And they won’t have Porterfield as the shining light to follow.
Porterfield’s departure comes at a delicate time.
The unexplained surge in demands to “verify” data on student federal financial aid applications hurts poor students the most. The House threatens to slow the growth of student loans. And then there’s the DACA (Deferred Action for Child Arrivals) students, brought to America as children, an impressive college success story now threatened by the Trump Administration’s crackdown on undocumented residents.
All combined, the recent successful push to win more degrees for students who rarely earn those degrees (9% of children from low-income families earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared to 70% of the children from high-income families) could be facing headwinds. Strong ones.
One source of hope is the American Talent Initiative, which Porterfield created with other university presidents.The initiative set a national goal of enrolling 50,000 more Pell Grant students in the colleges with the highest graduation rates by 2025. So far 87 institutions have answered the call, ranging from Amherst to the University of Texas Austin and Vanderbilt to the entire Ivy League.
Having Porterfield, the national role model for that push, at the helm of the Aspen Institute is a positive, but not nearly as positive as having him live out that role as a college president.
Who will step up to take over Porterfield’s role?
Education writer Richard Whitmire is the author of several books on education and a former editorial writer for USA TODAY.