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Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, spends a lot of time talking about high-achieving students, an emphasis on educational success, instructors who give students individual attention, and the noncognitive skills important to success, such as perseverance.

Sometimes he’s talking about what he wants to foster at his own institution, but many times he’s talking about high schools, such as those in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools.

Porterfield sees institutions involved in the “education reform” movement -- K-12 schools such as those that are part of the KIPP, Achievement First, Mastery, and Cristo Rey networks -- as a perfect proving ground for students who will likely be successful at institutions like Franklin & Marshall. Since becoming the college’s president in 2011, Porterfield has led a concerted effort to ramp up recruitment of students from these institutions, strike partnerships with the broader education reform networks, and institute programs on campus to serve such students.

Porterfield and others at Franklin & Marshall think they are a good fit to serve these students – many of whom struggle to graduate at larger universities despite their high school success – because liberal arts colleges provide the kind of high-touch environment these students are used to, along with access to faculty, educational resources, and alumni networks.

The effort could also prove beneficial for the college as well. In addition to diversifying student bodies that have traditionally hailed from white, upper- and middle-class families, which administrators say will strengthen all students’ educational experiences, Franklin & Marshall also gets a foothold in an emerging network of institutions with a reputation for producing top students, a strategic advantage that could help grow the college’s own reputation as a destination for high-achieving and diverse students, both from those schools and others.

Most important for Porterfield, however, is the fact that the move reflects the college’s commitment to seeking out and educating the country’s top talent regardless of their backgrounds. “When you look down the road at the country we will be, it is clearly an imperative to close the leadership gap,” Porterfield said. “We need to make sure that the people who will be heads of entities that shape the country reflect that country. We need to be making sure we draw from the full American spectrum.”

Franklin & Marshall is not the only liberal arts college striking strategic partnerships designed to tap into new sources of talent, a strategy that has become more imperative as these institutions face increased competition for their traditional demographics from public universities. Vassar College recently partnered with the Posse Foundation to enroll a group of veterans, and several institutions have begun easing transfer pathways from community colleges. But the breadth of F&M’s efforts, as well as Porterfield’s intentionality, puts the college on the front lines of this effort. If students see success at institutions like Franklin & Marshall when they might not have otherwise, the move could have broad ramifications for the college-going decisions of a generation of low-income students that could transform liberal arts colleges, as well as larger institutions, trying to serve such students.

Tapping Into New Networks

Franklin & Marshall's push to reach out to these networks began in 2008, when the the college's Board of Trustees decided to reallocate resources toward financial aid. Over the past five years the college’s aid budget for first-year students has grown from $5.8 million to $10.3 million.

When Porterfield interviewed for the presidency in 2010, the board asked him how he thought that money should be spent. Porterfield -- who said he has long been interested in the education reform movement and had established partnerships with the Cristo Rey network and charter schools as senior vice president for strategic development at Georgetown University -- suggested focusing Franklin & Marshall’s efforts on such schools. “The way I would use the aid, I said, would be to find ways to reach out more broadly to find talent and tap into some of these emerging new markets,” he said.

The college, which has had a partnership with the Posse Foundation since 2005 to enroll annual cohorts of 10 students from New York City each year, decided to double that partnership, bringing an additional 10 students (this time from Miami) to study in STEM fields. Those students all receive full-tuition scholarships to the college, as well as training on how to be successful in college and support throughout their time.

The second major prong of the college’s “Next Generation” initiative was an on-campus program for rising high school seniors from schools that are part of the education reform movement. In its first year, the program brought in 23 students from KIPP schools. This summer the college expanded the program to include 60 students from a variety of urban charter schools including KIPP, Achievement First and Mastery schools, and 20 students from rural Pennsylvania.

For the program, students spend three weeks on Franklin & Marshall’s campus taking classes from faculty members, sleeping in dormitories, interacting with other high-achieving high school students and college mentors, learning about college life, and thinking about their own college application process. “It’s sort of all-hands-on-deck, full-community engagement,” said Shawn Jenkins, a 2010 graduate who organizes the summer program.

Porterfield said it cost about $100,000 to run the program in its first year, which came from reallocating resources. With the concept proven to be successful, he was able to raise about $300,000 for the program’s second year. He hopes to grow the program in coming years.

Jenkins, who was a Posse scholar from New York when he attended Franklin & Marshall, said the program is designed to give students exposure to the kinds of academic and social questions they might not have been previously exposed to but are important to success in college. He said his own experience with Posse, in which he was forced to confront similar questions before getting on campus, reduced the difficulty of having such conversations once he was enrolled.

In addition to preparing students for the academic and social aspects of college, program staff and faculty members also work with students in the program to help them figure out what they want in a college experience and where they might be a good fit (even if it’s not Franklin & Marshall).

“One of the things I love about the program is the opportunity to do a full assessment of a student,” Jenkins said. “Lots of colleges say they do a holistic review of applicants, but rarely do you get the chance to see how a student is going to interact. We get to see these students for three weeks interacting with each other, giving presentations and doing the liberal arts seriously.... It gives us a sense of whether a student feels right here.”

Jenkins said he and others with the program follow up with students once they return to school for their senior years to help them with their application process and any difficulties they might be having with coursework and life.

The program, while primarily designed to help these students find a college that’s the right fit for them, also helps Franklin & Marshall find students who would be a good fit at the college and might not have applied otherwise. Seven students from the first class of 25 are part of the freshman class at Franklin & Marshall. The second class is currently in the admissions process, and administrators said some are likely to be accepted to F&M.

The programs seem to be showing success. Over the past six years, the proportion of incoming students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants more than tripled, growing from 5 percent to 17 percent for the class that entered this fall. The class that entered this fall was 19 percent students of color, compared to 12 percent five years ago.

What Does Success Take?

F&M administrators said they’re cognizant of the fact that students recruited from these schools are likely to face multiple barriers that their traditional students would not face. KIPP’s own study of its graduates’ success in college found somewhat disappointing results, with only about a third of KIPP graduates completing college.

Franklin & Marshall administrators said they think the supportive environment of the college will likely help overcome some of these barriers, but they’re also taking more intentional steps to ensure not only that students do well in class and graduate, but that they will be successful in the long run.

The college recently hired Donnell Butler, a Franklin & Marshall graduate with a Ph.D. in sociology, as a senior associate dean for planning and analysis of student outcomes. Butler’s role will be to use data and research from both Franklin & Marshall and across higher education to make recommendations about ways to ensure student success.

The role is broad in scope, ranging from ensuring that students have access to food when they’re on campus over breaks and the dining halls are closed to finding new ways to measure alumni success and how the college played into that.

Porterfield also wants to take what the institution learns about student success and relay that information back to partners to help them improve their own K-12 curriculums.

Financing students is another challenge Franklin & Marshall must confront. Since most of the students enrolling form these schools come from low-income households, the cost of tuition, room and board, which is over $51,000 a year at Franklin & Marshall, could be prohibitive.  

Since the college has an endowment of about $303 million as of June 2011 – much smaller than those of elite liberal arts college such as Williams, Amherst, and Grinnell, which all have endowments of more than $1 billion – it cannot fund all its aid through endowment returns. And the college has recently made a pledge to limit loans and “gapping” – when a college admits a student but does not provide sufficient aid.

While many colleges would see this a bad thing, “I don’t see increasing the discount rate as a bad thing,” Porterfield said. “It’s just a natural adjustment."

A Good Fit

Reaching out to low-income, urban students is a significant shift for a group of institutions like Franklin & Marshall whose historic demographic has been middle- and high-income students. While institutions such as Franklin & Marshall have been beefing up diversity recruiting efforts for many years, Porterfield's efforts are broader than traditional strategies.

But in recent years, particularly as more colleges go after the coveted demographic of full-pay students that provided the bulk of the students for colleges such as Franklin & Marshall, there has been a concerted effort to try to find a particular type of student, no matter where they hail from.

“Students who do well as Franklin & Marshall, from all the data I’ve analyzed so far, are the ones who are persistent, resilient, who learn from mistakes and push forward,” Butler said. “Students who have those academic abilities as well as those social abilities, those are the students we want.”

Porterfield and Butler both said that schools such as KIPP and Achievement First, which combine rigorous coursework with a mentality that prizes close work with instructors, individualized attention, and perseverance, line up well with what they want in students.

“For us, it’s a natural extension,” Butler said. “If you’re someone who expects to be able to talk to the person in the front of the classroom, build a relationship with an adult in a field you’re passionate about and interested in, you can do that here. I think it’s a lot harder to do at a place like Penn State."

Jenkins said he experienced this firsthand as a Posse student in a liberal arts environment. “It felt small enough that I felt important, that I wouldn’t slip through cracks, that I would be supported to be successful,” he said. He also said that the whole campus was supportive of his efforts to enact new programs and organizations, pointing to his success at starting a sustainability-themed student house and recreating the student government.

Porterfield hopes to encourage other liberal arts colleges to think about tapping into the kinds of schools working to train students who could be successful in colleges like his. He has also gotten personally interested in K-12 reform, and he sits on the board of the Cristo Rey network as well as Teach for America’s University Champions’ board and the board of directors for the National College Advising Corps.

“Higher education should be informed and knowledgeable about the K-12 education reform movement,” he said. “And it should not be neutral about supporting what works.”

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