Franklin & Marshall College President Daniel R. Porterfield urged a group of influential college and university leaders, gathered for a Higher Education Summit at the White House Jan. 16, to recognize and recruit the high-achieving academic talent in the nation's low-income student populations.
"We have to attack the myth that low-income kids cannot succeed in college," said Porterfield, one of four panelists to lead off the daylong summit with a discussion about what colleges can do to attract and retain lower-income students and ensure their success once on campus. "The core reality is that low-income kids are a collection of assets and talent and striving and drive. They're not a collection of pathologies that have to somehow be remediated constantly."
Participating in the summit at the invitation of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Porterfield cited how F&M has prioritized closing the opportunity gap by enhancing access for high-achievers through partnerships with schools, networks, communities, and K-12 programs that prepare students in ways predictive of academic success, and by increasing significantly the resources F&M provides toward need-based financial aid.
"We have to believe in the power of our kids to do it and to make that education count," Porterfield said. "We'll be able to generate much more support from our legislators and our donors and our boards and our faculty because people rightly will associate access with being a key part to academic strength."
Fellow panelist David Coleman, co-founder of Student Achievement Partners and current president of the College Board, lauded Porterfield for F&M's commitment to recruiting, enrolling, and financially supporting talented, low-income students the last few years. "Dan Porterfield, in my mind, is one of the most courageous people whom I've met," Coleman said.
The panel's moderator, James Shelton, acting deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, kicked off the discussion by asking Coleman why selective, higher education institutions are now recognizing high-achieving, low-income students. "What is making this moment different than others?" posed Shelton.
"There is, simply put, great inequality in our nation's top schools today," Coleman said, echoing Porterfield's assessment that talented, low-income students can achieve academic success -- but only if the education system shows them how to access the top schools.
"Low-income students, those who are high-performing, let's say in the top 10 percent of SAT scores, these high-performing students betray themselves," Coleman said. "They do not take advantage of the opportunities they have earned."
Also joining Porterfield in the exchange was Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and secretary of Homeland Security who now heads the University of California System, and Salman Khan, portfolio manager at Khan Capital Management and founder of the free education website Khan Academy.
Porterfield was among a select few college and university presidents chosen for leading roles during the summit, which brought together scores of higher education leaders from across the country to devise and launch a plan of action for increasing college opportunities for low-income and disadvantaged students.
On Jan. 15, Porterfield and other summit participants attended a dinner with senior administration officials in the Indian Treaty Room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.
This is the third time this academic year that Porterfield and F&M have been on the national stage addressing the issue of college access. In October, Porterfield was picked by producers at NBC News for a panel discussion of "What It Takes: A Path to Higher Ed," a segment of the network’s annual, nationally broadcast Education Nation Summit in New York City. A month later, he was in the nation's capital for a meeting of education leaders -- "The Next America: Pathways to Success" -- convened by the National Journal.
In the days leading up to the summit, Porterfield also was quoted by the Washington Post in a story about White House efforts to advance Obama administration economic and social policies absent legislation by a gridlocked Congress.
Porterfield left the White House with the following commitments from F&M to continue providing access to high-achieving, low-income students:
- F&M will expand its financial support for lower-income students by increasing its financial aid budget for 2014-2015 by 10 percent and will seek to sustain that level of aid in subsequent years through philanthropy. This additional need-based aid will enable F&M to increase the number of Pell Grant recipients in its student body and builds on the significant work the College has done to provide more aid for low-income students.
- F&M will sustain its cohorts of Posse Foundation students from Miami interested in STEM fields for at least the next five years. In 2011, F&M became the first liberal arts college to agree to host a STEM Posse and currently has two cohorts of 10 students each enrolled. The College’s first STEM Posse, with science-heavy schedules, earned first-year GPAs substantially higher than the average for their class as a whole.
- F&M will seek philanthropic support to sustain its Pilot Next Generation Initiative in order to increase the proportion of low-income, high-achieving students. Through this Initiative, F&M has raised to 17 percent the proportion of Pell Grant recipients in the last three entering classes, up from a three-year average of 7 percent five years ago, with increased retention rates, strong academic performance, and lower student indebtedness.
- F&M will invest for at least two more years in its pilot F&M College Prep program, a three-week summer program that has served 71 talented, low-income, rising high school seniors from 13 urban areas and rural Pennsylvania communities served by the National College Advising Corps. Through this program, these students take courses taught by college faculty and attend workshops that help them navigate the college admission process while promoting personal development. More than 90 percent of 2011 and 2012 participants enrolled in four-year colleges.
- F&M will seek to further reduce the average indebtedness of its students at graduation, which has declined by 17 percent over the past two years.