Jim McCorkell’s Admission Possible closes the large college admissions gap between the wealthy and the poor by using a team-oriented, low cost approach that combines youth workers with small teams of students. These two-year partnerships have resulted in 98 percent of his students being admitted to college since he started Admission Possible in 2000.
The New Idea
Jim has engineered an effective, low cost way to give low-income students the opportunity to attend college. Admission Possible assembles promising, low-income teens into 8 to 12 person teams that are led by a youth worker who is a recent college graduate. These teams are designed to help the students to prepare for taking standardized tests such as SAT and ACT, apply for financial aid, select the right courses to prepare for college, write their college applications, and make the transition to college.While there are other programs that help low-income students attend college, Admission Possible succeeds, at one fifth the average cost, for three main reasons. First, teams are the building blocks of the program. The 8 to 12 students in a team form a genuine support community for each other over the course of two years. This counters the rampant peer pressure to under-perform that plagues many disadvantaged communities. Second, Admission Possible gives each student more than 300 hours of direct service over the two years—an amount that greatly surpasses the commitments of other programs. Finally, Jim’s program uses national service program volunteers who are aspiring teachers and counselors as team leaders. Using this approach a mere 25 leaders can serve 600 students for two years and achieve a 98 percent success rate for about $1,500 per student per year.The team-based element, and the critical role of the team leader, are the cornerstones of the program’s effectiveness. Team support creates multiple benefits for the students and the team-leaders, and it compensates for the relative lack of environmental supports available to low-income students interested in attending college compared to their more privileged counterparts. Jim deliberately fosters a strong climate of camaraderie and a sense that each person has a responsibility for the success of the team. As a result the teams become strong and encouraging support networks for these aspiring youth.Jim’s program is also unique because the team leaders are drawn from national service programs like AmeriCorps. This means they are young, idealistic, committed to service, and, because they earn only a modest living stipend, the cost of delivering services with them is exceptionally low. These young people have only their one or two year service term to leave their mark—this motivation produces hard-working, results-focused leaders who themselves emerge better equipped to face their careers. The infrastructure of the national service programs also provides a framework for replicating Admission Possible.Nationally, 50 percent of college students drop out before attaining their degrees and most of the low-income students drop out by their third year. Now in its fifth year, nearly 90 percent of Admission Possible’s students are still enrolled or have graduated.
It is a widely held belief in the U.S. that a quality education is the best ladder out of poverty. Indeed, a person who earns a college degree can expect to earn five times the salary of someone without such qualifications. However, higher education is not accessible enough to make this achievement possible for the majority of poor Americans. The college admissions gap perpetuates the existing wealth differential in the U.S., as youth from more privileged backgrounds attend college at nearly seven times the rate of low-income students. America is failing to educate entire generations of young people. Failure to correct this imbalance is a tragic mistake for the future of the country and for competition in a globalized world. The barriers that prevent most poor youth from getting to college are functional and cultural. The first functional barrier is the standardized tests required by virtually all institutions of higher education. Even high academic achievers from all classes must do well on these tests before even submitting an application. Students from wealthier classes have access to prep courses and admissions counselors. Those from families earning more than $100,000/year typically score 1131 (out of 1600) on the SAT, while students from families living below poverty score just 873 on the SAT. The minimum threshold for most colleges to even consider a student for admission is a score of 1,000.The second functional barrier is the knowledge and counseling to choose the right college. Many poor students will be the first in their families to ever attend college; they cannot tap into social networks nor take advantage of “legacy” admissions policies which favor the children of alumni or major donors. Guidance counselors in under-resourced public schools cannot counsel each student in his or her applications, or drive them to look beyond everyone’s expectations. Even when low-income students can surmount these biases in admission practices, they have the additional barrier of having to raise funds for tuition and other school-related costs.There are also cultural barriers to college admission in many low-income communities. The expectation of college, so often assumed in wealthier families, is only a vague hope for many students. Low expectations are a heavy burden to bear, even worse when they are exacerbated by lack of resources. Community supports and networks are rare; teachers and parents in particular are often over-stretched and under-informed about options for financial aid or admissions strategies. In fact, most often neither teachers nor counselors receive specific training on how to find financial aid and help students prepare for standardized tests. Consequently, low-income students end up with far less know-how and personal supports to draw upon than their wealthier counterparts. Even those few who manage to defy these odds and gain admission to college often struggle to make the transition, adjust, and “fit in.” This can lead to early drop-out and poor performance, bringing students right back to where they started. Indeed, only 7 percent of low-income students nationwide earn a college degree by age 24.
Admission Possible has a clear and practical strategy honed by Jim’s deep interest in citizen democracy and his experiences as a test-prep instructor, political campaign manager, and national service leader. Jim has determined that the best thing that he can do to strengthen the democracy is to systematically spread educational opportunity for low-income people—and to do it in an experiential way that re-enforces the democratic ethic of “mutual aid for individual and group success.”The structure and content of Admission Possible is built to address the functional and cultural barriers to college admission outlined above. The Admission Possible program begins in the junior year of high school. Students are grouped into small teams and matched with a team leader. The teams meet twice a week after school over the next two years and each person receive at least 160 hours of instruction and support each year. The first of the series of two hour group sessions looks exclusively at intensive test preparation: test taking skills, practice exams and strategies for success. The second 2 hour session is a team-based workshop on various needs including: academic support, selecting potential schools, financial aid consulting and one on one time with the team leaders to identify and delve into individual issues. Admission Possible addresses the dearth of advice and support students receive for their applications with advice and guidance on course selection, how to apply for early admission, and the elements of a successful college essay (seen as a critical element of any application). Team leaders and team members review each others essays and college prep materials and help each other to hone their arguments, ideas, and applications. Team leaders consult with parents and students in preparing and executing each student’s college admissions strategy.Few things are more disheartening than earning your way into a good school and then not be able to afford the tuition. Middle and upper class families are better informed about scholarships and alternative financing options than their lower-income counterparts. Admission Possible educates students about various scholarship and loan options, and supports their applications.After two intensive years, teams and team leaders are deeply invested in the success of each member. To ensure that students will not just be admitted, but also complete college, Admission Possible also addresses the cultural transition to college. To prevent some of the culture shock and disorientation, Admission Possible helps each student to identify schools that are a good fit for them along many dimensions—not just academically. The team leader often takes students to the campus that they will attend and introduces them to key staff people. As college is often students’ first experience with financial independence, students are also trained in financial literacy to know what they have to do to protect and extend their financial aid status after their freshman year.Throughout the process, the role of the team leader is invaluable for the students. However, Jim designed the program such that the benefits go equally in both directions. Most of Admission Possible’s team leaders, sourced from national service programs such as AmeriCorps and VISTA, are aspiring youth workers, teachers, or counselors. Their two years with Admission Possible serves as a residency or practicum for learning to support students in practical and important ways that simply aren’t taught in education courses today.Currently Admission Possible services the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Jim is actively pursuing replication after establishing a strong five year track record in the Twin Cities.
Neither of Jim’s parents graduated from high school. He grew up watching them work hard at physically demanding and frustrating jobs for low pay. Jim defied many of the same barriers he coaches kids to beat today, landing at Carleton College, a small, strong liberal arts college in Minnesota. There he met professor and future Senator Paul Wellstone. Prof. Wellstone became a trusted mentor, instilling values of service and responsibility to others. This mentorship had a tremendous influence on Jim and his future path. He developed a strong sense of duty to empower and uplift other citizens, as well as an impressive and accomplished academic and extracurricular resume. A college degree in hand, he went on to earn a Masters in Political Science from the University of North Caroline as well as a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard, all with an eye for the intersections of empowerment, service, and democracy.Jim pursued a career in politics (including leading fundraising efforts for his mentor’s successful 1996 Senatorial campaign) and also in public service. His time spent with City Year, the original model for a national service program, taught him many lessons about running programs for youth, engaging future leaders and building teams. These lessons, combined with a passion for true democracy and a firm belief in human potential, would greatly inform the development of Admission Possible.