Bridging the Gap Between Low-Income Students and Top Colleges

The National Education Equity Lab has created a model for helping low-income high school students and elite colleges connect. With philanthropists and universities partnering to provide college-level courses at no cost, many of the students have gone on to top colleges.

November 2, 2021
A National Educational Equity Lab class at work in New York City
(National Educational Equity Lab)

After several years prosecuting federal civil rights cases as an assistant United States attorney in New York City, Leslie Cornfeld turned her attention to fighting for what she saw as the most fundamental civil right of all: equity in education.

Two years ago, Cornfeld launched the National Education Equity Lab to help more low-income and first-generation high school students make the jump to selective colleges.

“Admissions offices fly around the country in search of the most talented athletes that exist, targeting many of our most underserved communities,” said Cornfeld, Ed Equity Lab’s CEO and founder. “We want them to now be finding and identifying the best scholars in those very same communities.”

Cornfeld said the Ed Equity Lab model was designed to easily scale courses offered at elite colleges by using Zoom conferencing technology to deliver them asynchronously to high school students nationwide. The lab started in 2019, offering a Harvard University humanities class to 25 high schools in 11 cities.

Since its launch in 2019 and running through the end of this school year, Ed Equity Lab will have offered college courses to approximately 8,000 students from Title I high schools -- or high schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The equity lab is now operating in 90 cities and 32 states across the country. Institutional partners include Stanford, Howard, Princeton, Columbia, Wesleyan, Cornell and Georgetown Universities, Barnard College, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Arizona State University. Cornfeld said many new university partners will be announced before the end of the year. Ninety percent of participating high school students are minorities, Cornfeld said, and an overwhelming majority will be first-generation college students.

Cornfeld said her goal is to bring the Ed Equity Lab model to all Title I high schools nationwide within five years. The program is in 120 high schools this semester, and an additional 80 high schools are on the wait list for the spring semester.

The president of Wesleyan is teaching an Ed Equity Lab course, and professors at other schools are so enthused that they call her to discuss their teaching plans, Cornfeld said.

“These past two years have really laid bare the inequities in our country in a way that can no longer be disregarded, and I think that many higher education institutions are strengthening their commitment to equity and access in new ways,” she said.

Stanford announced plans last week to participate as an Ed Equity Lab partner as well as the creation of a new office, Stanford Digital Education, which it says will leverage the university’s technological know-how and teaching expertise to incubate new ideas for collaborating with other organizations, just as it is with Ed Equity Lab.

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Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education at Stanford, said the university plans to expand on its initial Ed Equity Lab offering of one computer science course and will soon add additional writing, literature and computer science courses. Rascoff said Stanford alumni and grad students also will contribute to the effort by mentoring the participating high school students, offering support on problem sets and guidance on how to apply to college. Rascoff believes the overall initiative and the mentoring program within it can solve what has been an intractable problem for elite universities seeking talented low-income students without as much success as they’d like.

He pointed out that need-blind financial aid packages at elite schools often offer lower-cost tuition than even community college, but, he said, it has historically been difficult for elite universities to reach low-income and first-generation college students while they are still in high school.

“There is a movement that is happening and an awareness among highly selective institutions that they need to address these big problems in society,” Rascoff said. “What’s new here is the idea that technology can play a role in that. In addition to pouring money into financial aid, how are we solving these pathway problems that financial aid can’t solve on its own? Because if a low-income student never even applies to a selective college, what good is the aid going to do?”

Both Rascoff and Cornfeld cited the work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, whose research has focused on opportunity and the difficulty many people born into poverty have accessing it. Rascoff said he was particularly moved by Chetty’s so-called Lost Einsteins research, which found that if women, minorities and children from low-income families who could have made high-impact discoveries had been exposed to innovation while growing up and had innovated at the same rate as white men from high-income families, the United States could have four times as many inventors today.

Rascoff said that research is in line with Stanford’s focus on providing mentors, because it shows that a combination of skills and social networks determines who becomes an inventor.

The new digital education office builds on a long legacy at Stanford, Rascoff said, citing the fact that education technology was invented as an industry at the university in the 1950s.

“There was an instructional tech network that used microwaves, where we beamed classes to Silicon Valley and helped seed professional learning for Hewlett-Packard and other companies,” Rascoff said. “That was where the idea of lifelong learning through technology originated.”

Daniel Pianko, managing director at Achieve Partners, an education investment firm, praised Stanford’s commitment to education equity and longtime leadership in online education, including with the founding of Coursera, which offers free online courses on a massive scale. But Pianko said that Stanford and other selective universities nonetheless have a long road ahead if they want to undo the sins of the past.

“Elite colleges for too many years have outsourced the selection of their freshman class to athletic coaches, elite preparatory schools and alumni offices,” Pianko said. “Forty-three percent of Harvard’s white freshmen came from those three sources, according to a recent Duke University study. Too much of the attempt to diversify higher ed has not actively sought the Einsteins who did not have access to the right K-12 education.”

Cornfeld said Ed Equity Lab sprang from her time working on education justice as a member of the Obama administration. She flew around the country meeting school principals, who would tell her how difficult it was for low-income students in Title I schools to show their potential to college admissions offices. But when Cornfeld pivoted and talked to college admissions offices, they’d tell her they “just couldn’t find the talent in these ZIP codes.”

An idea was born: Cornfeld decided someone needed to connect selective universities and low-income schools and that she would use technology to bridge the gap.

“Our mantra at the equity lab is that talent is evenly distributed,” Cornfeld said. “Opportunity is not. And our mission is to help change that.”

Over the past year, despite school closures and the challenges of the pandemic in the equity lab’s target communities, approximately 80 percent of students taking a college course passed, receiving a university transcript and three college credits.

Cornfeld said Ed Equity Lab recently began a longitudinal study with Johns Hopkins University and will be looking closely at data on lab participants’ college acceptance and completion rates. She said anecdotal results so far bolster Ed Equity Lab’s thesis that there are more talented scholars to be found in underserved communities -- and that these students can succeed at top colleges. Admissions offices at partner universities have called professors who have taught Ed Equity Lab courses to ask about student applicants, she said, and several of those high schoolers have gone on to matriculate at those colleges. Cornfeld recalled one high school student from the Navajo Nation who aced a Harvard course she took through the Ed Equity Lab.

“Her brother said to her, ‘You need to apply off of our reservation,’ which she said she had never thought about doing before,” Cornfeld said. “She’s now a second-year student at Columbia University on a full scholarship and doing extremely well.”

Ed Equity Lab is supported in large part by philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. The participating universities provide courses at no cost. School districts pay a nominal amount to participate.

The model is strikingly simple: high school principals are asked to select a classroom teacher to work alongside the university professor leading the course. Ed Equity Lab trains the high school teacher on how to facilitate the courses in tandem with the remote professor. Principals select students who they believe can succeed in a college class, a determination that Cornfeld said is based in part on GPA and in part on an assessment.

The model relies to a large degree on creating community, assigning college grad students as teaching fellows to grade work and meet with students regularly, and even offering office hours with the professor over Zoom. Classes are asynchronous and are divided into sections to replicate the college experience as closely as possible.

“This is not an ed-tech model,” Cornfeld said. “It is a model that uses technology to build confidence, community relationships and college readiness at scale.”

Cornfeld said Ed Equity Lab is about more than providing colleges courses to high school students. It is designed to get scholars into “best match” colleges and turn the tide on “undermatching,” a theory that holds that many talented low-income students never even apply to selective universities. The equity lab connects students with college advisers and works with the Common App and other nonprofits to help with the application, selection and financial aid processes.

Giving talented students a chance to stand out without relying on standardized tests, which Cornfeld said “mask talent, particularly in our underserved communities,” has been an added benefit. Like Rascoff, Cornfeld has been inspired by Chetty’s work documenting uneven access to opportunity; Cornfeld even traveled to Harvard to meet with Chetty before launching Ed Equity Lab.

Chetty published research in 2017 showing that at 38 American colleges, including five in the Ivy League, more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

Chetty praised Ed Equity Lab’s model and what Cornfeld has achieved since their meeting at Harvard. In addition to his research and teaching roles, Chetty now leads Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based research institute using big data to improve upward mobility.

“Low-income students are underrepresented at the best colleges and universities in the United States, limiting their pathways to upward mobility,” Chetty said via email. “The Ed Equity Lab is an ambitious attempt to combat this challenge. By providing disadvantaged students access to classes for credit at elite colleges and universities, the Ed Equity Lab is helping shape a growing movement to democratize access to higher education and give more low-income students a shot at the American Dream.”

Cornfeld believes Ed Equity Lab has found a new way for underprivileged and minority students to shine at a cultural moment when more elite universities are waking up to the importance of aggressively recruiting them. She said she has been struck by the similarities to her work as a federal prosecutor focused on civil rights in policing, where she noticed the police precincts that needed the best law enforcement resources often got the least. School districts, she said, follow the same pattern.

“What better way is there to demonstrate that a student can succeed in college than to give them the opportunity to demonstrate their success in a college class?” she said. “This is an opportunity for colleges and universities to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk.”

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