Speaking at a national event Monday that brought together leaders in higher education, Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield showcased the College as forceful and deliberate in pursuing efforts to actively seek, prepare and enroll America's untapped academic talent pool -- the low-income, high-achieving student.
"One of the real myths is that lower-income students will not achieve at a high level in college, or secondly that low income students in order to even survive college need almost a creation of a college within a college to take care of them every step of the way," Porterfield said. He spoke as a featured panelist during NBC News' "Education Nation" Summit 2013 in New York City, which began Sunday, Oct. 6, and continues through Tuesday, Oct. 8.
"While it is important to provide support and respond to the individual," Porterfield said of talented, low-income students, "the fact of the matter is that talent rises in America."
The theme of NBC's three-day summit is "What It Takes" to help students succeed in the American higher education system, and the event features the country’s leaders in education, government, business, philanthropy and media. Porterfield was one of four members of the panel, "A Path to Higher Ed," moderated by MSNBC's Tamron Hall and streamed live online at EducationNation.com. The fourth annual summit is taking place at the New York Public Library, headed by Anthony Marx, the former president of Amherst College.
"It's such an honor to be here at the New York Public Library in Tony Marx's house, who was the leader in higher education who perhaps did the most to bring in first-generation and diverse kids," said one of the panelists, David Coleman, president and CEO of the 113-year-old College Board. Coleman compared Porterfield's efforts to serve low-income and first-generation students with those of Marx. "Dan perhaps is Tony Marx's most natural successor."
Joining Porterfield and Coleman on the panel was Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University and co-author of a study that has received national attention on the "hidden" group of high-achieving, low-income students who miss college opportunities by virtue of their socioeconomic status and geographic location.
"We need to go further," Hoxby said, asserting that one of the chief solutions is reaching out to students from a broader range of socioeconomic backgrounds. "You can't just stop with high-achieving, low-income students. All students really need to have better information about their college-going opportunities, and that's something we're working on."
The panelists discussed the need for colleges to pursue a different approach to recruiting low-income students that includes waiving fees, not because a student is poor, but instead based on his or her academic achievement. The conversation also delved into reaching out to students in their sophomore and junior years of high school, and building partnerships with school districts and college access networks, exactly what F&M has been doing.
"One reason why kids today from lower economic groups don't see college as part of their future is there (aren't enough of these students) in college," Porterfield said. "It's absolutely crucial that we invest in all aspects of K through 12 education and then challenge American higher education to get out, off the campus and into the communities of America, and find that extraordinary talent, and ensure that talent has access to a first-class institution."
"And that's what Franklin & Marshall is doing, you're not waiting around?" Hall, the moderator, asked.
Porterfield's answer received applause from the summit audience. He explained that, not only has F&M "significantly increased financial aid" -- achieving three consecutive years with 17 percent of the incoming students qualifying for the federal Pell Grant, available to students in the lowest economic quartile -- but F&M also is seeing these students succeed academically.
"It's not just that they're getting in," Porterfield said. "They’re strengthening the student body. They're achieving grades at exactly the same level as the overall freshman class. And our retention rate, our returning rate, of the 100 Pell-eligible students, was 98 percent."
Solutions beyond "sexy change"
At times, the discussion focused on how to help low-income students achieve at high levels by finding the right fit for college.
The fourth panelist, Tanisha Kwaaning, an English teacher at Christian Fenger Academy High School and director of the college persistence program OneGoal, talked about taking students to campuses to meet with college students and educators.
"We start our students off in junior year talking about college," Kwaaning said. "We get them interested in colleges."
Speaking to the panelists from his seat in the audience, Justin Porter, a Harvard sophomore who wrote an essay for the New York Times about college access, praised Porterfield's comments about the need for colleges to broaden their reach as a "profound statement."
"The problem is people today are attracted, especially in education reform, to sexy change or temporary, fast change," Porter said. "What we need is broad-based leadership across all sectors. We need to make education the centerpiece."
Porterfield asserted that leadership in providing financial aid is a key part of the solution: "We in higher education have failed in our responsibility in recent years to increase financial aid so that more students have the opportunity to go to schools like Franklin and Marshall College that launch every student into lifetimes of success," he said. "That is on us. We have to increase our financial aid and get out there and find more kids."
Porterfield was one of four college presidents selected to serve as panelists for the summit. The other three were Mitchell Daniels Jr. of Purdue University, Freeman Hrabowski III of University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University.
According to summit organizers, NBC selected Porterfield because of F&M's national leadership in guiding efforts to increase pathways for talented students to colleges that match their academic ability. The College's efforts include a significant increase in financial aid and the launch in 2011 of F&M College Prep, a pre-college immersion program for students from across the country that has had a 100 percent success rate in participants enrolling in college.
F&M also has established partnerships and relationships with public schools and school networks; has earned national recognition for its focus on student success in and beyond college; created a unique position in higher education designed specifically to help the College analyze and repeat student outcomes; and launched in 2012 its Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, focusing on students' personal development, as well as preparing them for post-graduate opportunities.
Portions of the summit will be featured on MSNBC, “NBC Nightly News,” “TODAY” and NBC's other digital platforms. Members of the Franklin & Marshall community have been invited to watch on the F&M website a livestream of the panel, where archived video of "A Path to Higher Ed" will be available after the summit.
NBC launched the summit in fall 2010, bringing together policy-makers, government officials, educators, business leaders and others who can influence progressive change in education to address the most pressing education issues facing the country.