When Colleges Invest in Students, Everyone Wins

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By Daniel R. Porterfield, President, Franklin & Marshall College

Thanksgiving offers the quintessential moment to express our gratitude for the richness in our lives. For me, I am profoundly blessed to work at a liberal arts college, where the future of society develops through an outstanding education, cultivating strength, passion, perseverance, and ambition in our students.

I see it often in so many ways:

There is Ashley Ceron of KIPP NYC High School, who is a sociology major, a mentor for countless students, and the president of our leadership organization of women, SISTERS.

There’s also Andrea Martinez, a graduate of KIPP Austin, who has mentored dozens of KIPP high school students through our summer program F&M College Prep, while playing women’s rugby and majoring in creative writing.

And then there’s Donnell Bailey, another sociology major and a graduate of KIPP New Orleans, who led his peers as student body president last year and has discovered his passion for understanding and promoting justice through public policy.

Everybody–students, colleges, and society–wins when talent is cultivated across the full American mosaic. Tens of thousands of low-income high school seniors each year have the talent to thrive in our country’s leading colleges and universities, and it is the responsibility of our institutions to open their doors and cultivate these future leaders. Not only does research show that there is a $1 million lifetime earnings premium for those with a college degree, but America needs citizens educated to solve our greatest challenges. We don’t have a person to waste, and talent must be given the opportunity to rise.

And strong colleges like Franklin & Marshall, with rigorous academics, high graduation rates, and a supportive community in which every student is known and valued, should lead the way. F&M’s founder Benjamin Franklin famously recognized that anyone’s best work results from being heavily involved in their own learning process.

But this kind of education must be accessible to all who have earned it–not just those who can already afford to pay high tuition costs. To maintain America’s meritocracy and protect our democracy, our leading institutions have an obligation to invest in financial aid and open the doors of college opportunity.

To do this at F&M, we developed an intentional plan.

Five years ago, we embarked upon our Next Generation Initiative, a comprehensive talent strategy to recruit, support, educate, and launch the careers of top achievers from all income groups and zip codes–and thus strengthen F&M as a whole.

We doubled need-based financial aid, enhanced campus resources for low-income and first-generation college goers, created F&M College Prep, and built innovative new partnerships with leading change-making high schools, networks, and access programs like KIPP.

As a result, F&M has nearly tripled its proportion of Pell Grant recipients from an average of seven percent of incoming students in 2006-2008 to an average of 19 percent over the past three entering classes. And these students are succeeding. They’re doing high-level research with scholars, leading student organizations, winning national fellowships, and entering graduate school or getting great jobs after graduation. F&M’s Pell Grant recipients consistently earn the same average GPA as the student body as a whole and retain from their first to second year at an average rate of 95 percent–higher than their peers. Eighty-five percent of F&M’s Pell Grant recipients who enrolled in 2010 have graduated.

At the same time, we are working hard to ensure that our campus community is as welcoming and inclusive as possible. As our student body grows more diverse in every way, new conversations and, sometimes, tensions emerge related to consistent American issues like class, race, identity, and background. Since ours is an educational setting, we can support opportunities for dialogue and discussion and encourage students to work through these challenging questions together.

And to achieve this, all students must participate in their own learning.

Indeed, no person can simply be given an education; they must create it. Educators and institutions must protect and ensure access to the spaces that allow students to learn through proactive engagement.

In order to fulfill this mission, colleges must create pipelines to talent across the full American mosaic. We can’t let any talent hide.

After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who also told us that every person’s talent must be put to use because, “What’s a sundial in the shade?”

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