College Possible Assists Low-Income Students

Paying for college is challenging for most families. For students raised in low-income households, qualifying for admission to college can be even tougher. Historically, attending college has been beyond the reach of most economically disadvantaged students. College Possible, a nonprofit founded 16 years ago in St. Paul, exists to change that.

“College Possible focuses on students who typically earn degrees at one-tenth the rate of upper-income students,” said Sara Dziuk, the organization’s executive director. “We want to close that degree divide.” About 2,000 students in 26 local high schools take part in the program, 90 percent of whom are students of color.

Working with teachers and counselors, College Possible recruits sophomores who maintain a GPA of at least 2.0. They must come from families whose income is low enough for students to qualify for reduced-cost or free school lunches. The program that College Possible offers begins in a student’s junior year and runs through college graduation. To participate, students must agree to attend 320 hours of class, in two sessions per week, either after school or in the evening, over their junior and senior years.

Coaches, as College Possible calls its instructors, are AmeriCorps employees who have dedicated at least one year to the national-service organization, which is the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. They are typically 22 years old and recent college graduates. About 20 percent were College Possible students themselves.

Raising scores on the ACT college entrance exam is College Possible’s primary goal during the junior year. Coaches instruct students in reading, writing, math and science, as well as in test-taking strategies. College Possible partners with the Princeton Review to provide ACT test-prep materials. “Students come to our program with an average ACT score of 15, and by the end of their junior year at least half of them have raised their score to 18 or 19. They take lots of practice tests on Saturdays,” said Dziuk.

During the senior year, coaches cover the nuts and bolts of applying to college. This includes completing applications, writing essays, registering for tests, filling out the FAFSA, obtaining letters of reference and visiting campuses. It also includes searching out scholarships and other types of financial aid. College Possible encourages students to apply to at least five institutions, and helps to evaluate the offers that students ultimately receive. “By the end of their senior year, 99 percent of our students will gain admission to college,” Dziuk said.

New coaches mentor students once they’ve enrolled in college, assisting in course selection, monitoring academic progress, securing continued financial aid, and helping with FAFSA renewals and career guidance. About 55 percent of College Possible students who start college obtain degrees in six years, which is very close to the national average of 57 percent for all income levels.

About 80 percent of the $5 million operating budget of College Possible comes from private sources, with the rest coming from state and federal grants. Major donors include Cargill, General Mills, and 3M, along with the United Way. “We also have about 875 individual donors,” said Dziuk, “who contribute anywhere from $5 to $50,000.”

In Edina, students whose household income qualifies them for College Possible might also benefit from Give and Go, a program that addresses the rise in suburban poverty.

Begun in 2013, Give and Go “helps economically disadvantaged Edina Public School students afford the life and learning opportunities in our community,” said Abigail Lugo, executive director.
Give and Go financially assists Edina students in academic, art, and athletic programs that they could otherwise not afford. This might include swimming or music lessons, athletic team or summer camp fees, math or English tutoring, field trips, and Internet connections. Families must pay 10 percent of the costs themselves, and may receive up to $500 in support annually.

In the recent school year, Give and Go provided $92,000 in grants to more than 600 students. All funds were raised privately, from both individual donors and foundation grants. In carrying out its mission, Give and Go seeks to “meet small needs that have a big impact.”