Program shows underserved teens, elite colleges what’s possible with greater access

Hundreds of students at underserved high schools are taking credit-bearing courses at top colleges through a new initiative designed to help teens see their potential to thrive at those institutions. Launched by the New York-based nonprofit National Education Equity Lab, the program not only is allowing students to gain college credits at no cost but also is reinforcing to higher education leaders that “our nation’s talent is evenly distributed; opportunity is not,” Leslie Cornfeld, the Equity Lab’s founder and chief executive, told The New York Times.

Pilot program demonstrates high pass rate

Launched in 2019, the Equity Lab initiative began as a pilot program; it enrolled more than 300 “high-striving” 11th and 12th graders from 25 high-poverty high schools across 11 cities in a four-credit, online Harvard University Extension School course about poetry in America. Nearly 85 percent of participating students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and more than 90 percent were students of color.  

Supervised by teachers from their local school, the students participated in the typical array of course lectures, tests, and assignments. They also received support from college advisors and mentors. 

Harvard teaching fellows graded the students, applying the same criteria used for students attending Harvard. Eighty-nine percent of the high school students who completed the course passed it, and 63 percent earned an A or B grade. More than four in five participating students said the course helped them prepare for college. Even most students who received Ds and Fs said it helped them prepare for college in showing them the importance of seeking help and the rigors of postsecondary education.

Since that pilot phase, the Equity Lab program has expanded to reach approximately 1,500 high-poverty high school students across 35 cities, with additional universities—including Yale, Cornell, and Howard—providing instruction. The program is offered to students at no cost, with school districts, states, and philanthropic partners covering the students’ enrollment fees. 

Building students’ confidence, showing colleges an untapped pipeline

Overall, 86 percent of students participating in the Equity Lab initiative have passed their courses and earned college credits. The academic challenge is a critical part of the model, the Equity Lab says, as it helps students prepare for higher education and build their confidence. 

Di’Zhon Chase—who attended a Gallup, New Mexico, high school serving predominantly students from the Navajo Nation—says her participation in the 2019 Equity Lab pilot altered her outlook. “Harvard isn’t part of the conversation—you don’t even hear that word in Gallup,” Chase told The New York Times. “I had the dreams, the aspirations, but there was no, ‘I can really do that—go to these places where all these people do so many amazing things.’” Chase says that, having passed the college course, she shifted her postsecondary plans and now attends Columbia University. 

Students who pass the Equity Lab courses also emerge with a telling credential to round out the grades, essays, and test scores on their college applications, says Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions.  

In addition, experts point out that the geographic flexibility of a virtual format opens doors. “They put a lot of powerful pieces together, projected them to the most remote four corners of America, and it works,” says Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. “We should be ashamed of ourselves that this is not available to everybody, that’s it’s some exotic idea.” 

Cornfeld says she hopes the program will help universities think about the pipeline of high-achieving students from underrepresented communities that they could reach if only they pursued those students “with the same enthusiasm and success with which they identify top athletes.” Equity Lab leaders say they hope to serve 10,000 students by 2022.

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