Our May installment of the Bright Ideas series features Jim McCorkell, CEO and founder of College Possible, where he put into action his life-long passion to make college admission and success possible for low-income students.
Stephen Smith: It's MPR News Presents, Bright Ideas: Fresh Thoughts on Big Issues. Each month I invite a guest to the forum here at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters to talk about important issues and ideas before a live audience.
My guest this time is Minnesota native Jim McCorkell. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, but they were determined that Jim and his siblings would go to college. With his parents' help and the support of teachers, friends and scholarships, Jim McCorkell earned a B.A. from Carleton College and a master's degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Along the way, Jim McCorkell decided to dedicate himself to helping other kids from low income families make it past the hurdles that block many of them from the benefits of higher education. He created College Possible, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that serves some 9,000 students in three Midwestern cities. Please welcome Jim McCorkell.
Smith: Thanks for being here.
Jim McCorkell: Thanks for having me.
Smith: Let's start with your own story of getting into college. You grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, and your folks were both working people.
Smith: And neither one of them had graduated, although as I understand it, they went on, at least one of them or both of them, to get a GED?
McCorkell: Yeah, they both eventually earned their GED. But they met when they were teenagers, and fell in love. Before they knew it, my mom got pregnant and they dropped out of high school to start a family. They never got to college. I think that especially broke my mom's heart. She had really hoped to get to college, but she helped my siblings and I all make it to college.
Smith: This was in Northfield, Minnesota, which is famously a college town.
McCorkell: It is. In fact the story my mom used to tell was that her dad had saved up money for her to go to St. Olaf and she had the grades to get to college, and then fell in love with my dad. That sort of began a different life for them. But then they really committed themselves to trying to make sure their children would get that chance to go to college. That really gave me a unique vantage point on the world. I could see the difficult life my parents had. For many years my dad worked in a factory and later was a house painter. My mom used to work in a factory type setting until she had a bad accident with her hand. So I could see that life. But I'm the youngest of five siblings. I was able to see from their lives unfold and to really enter middle class life. My sister's a medical doctor and I have a brother who's a civil engineer. It was a really interesting vantage point on the world. To see, on the one hand, what life is like without a college degree. And on the other hand, all of the wonderful opportunities that are afforded people who get that opportunity to get a college degree.
Smith: If a person is growing up in a working class or a lower income family, what kinds of obstacles and barriers to, first of all getting into college, are there that more middle class who may have two or three generations of college going behind them that they don't really see.
McCorkell: I think a lot of times people think first and foremost about affordability. That is absolutely a big issue, and it's an increasingly important issue as tuition continues to rise. But it's not the only issue. So often the issues that lower income kids face are psychological in nature. It's that they don't envision themselves as college material. They don't ever think they're going to go to college. They don't have anybody in their life who is sort of encouraging them, who knows how to navigate that process. In a lot of ways what our organization does by using these AmeriCorps members is to give these low income kids in our program somebody who's like a middle class parent. Who does both the good of encouraging the students, helping them have higher aspirations, but also sort of nags them. Gives them a kick in the seat of the pants when that's what they need. But there are a lot of challenges, it's not just financial.
Smith: Your parents clearly always or did they always? intend for you to go to college. Were there obstacles in your case, in your story that were unexpected?
McCorkell: Yeah, you know I think in my case it was pretty clear I was going to go to college, because I had the good fortune of having four siblings who all made it to college. But one of my brothers became a father when he was 16, and so his path to college was kind of an unusual one. He got married, had a couple of kids, then got divorced, raised those kids. Even in my family with my parents really supporting, he saw some of those obstacles. I'd say I probably had the easiest time getting to college in my family. But even in my case, I think there were some big challenges. Then the other thing I'll say is, even once you get to college, you feel pretty alone. You can feel pretty isolated compared to a lot of kids who kind of...
You know, I remember my freshman week at Carleton College, and on my floor there were people who had gone to private prep schools, who had lived in dorms. They were used to that kind of life. There was a guy on my floor, he was a really guy nice, and he had a trust fund. So he could buy pizzas for everybody on the floor.
From my perspective, I was like, boy, when we got a pizza in our house, it was a really big deal. Like, to get a pizza delivered to our house was a really big deal. This guy would say, "We'll take 20 pizzas," and could pay for them. I remember just sort of thinking, wow, that's amazing. It was the beginning of being introduced to, for me at least, a life I hadn't really been exposed to before.
Smith: Let's talk about where you got this idea to create College Possible, and then we'll go into what College Possible is. It happened and there was a specific moment somewhere along your life path where you thought, "This is what I need to do"?
McCorkell: Yeah, it's funny, there is. There's a debate about whether there's really such thing as an epiphany. But it felt like an epiphany to me. I was in graduate school at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I was working on an idea for a different non profit organization that would have done something totally different. It had to do with affordable housing. I was sitting in a seminar on affordable housing, and somehow my mind drifted. All of a sudden this idea occurred to me, what if I'd been teaching for Kaplan SAT prep courses and GRE prep courses. The first idea that popped into my head was, what if you did that for low income kids, as a nonprofit? That was the initial kernel of the idea, and...
Smith: Were you in a lecture at the time?
McCorkell: Yeah, I was. Well, it was a seminar session. [laughing] So I don't know what they were talking about, but this is what I was thinking about, and...
Smith: Great ideas really come to you when you're not paying attention, right?
McCorkell: Right, right. That's a lesson to all students, daydream, no. But it did feel like an epiphany to me. It really felt like a moment of clarity. I remember going home, and I've kept a journal ever since I was a young person. I wrote about it, the day that this idea popped into my head. It just felt like clarity. It was in that sense that now that I'm a little bit older, I look back. It really wasn't an epiphany. It really was born out of my life experiences. But it felt like the right thing for me to do. I've never looked back since. It's been a joy and an honor to be able to do for now over 12 years.
Smith: Why were you teaching test prep at Kaplan? Was this just to make money, or was it part of some scheme?
McCorkell: Yeah. I was a good test taker and to make money, you know.
Smith: Did you prepare for test taking back when you were taking tests?
McCorkell: That's actually kind of an interesting story, because my sister, who's the medical doctor in the family, had purchased me an SAT prep book. Like most 17 year olds or 16 however old I was. It must have been 17 I didn't use it at all. I thought well this book's going to be useless after tomorrow, and I don't want to waste this book, so I thought I had better look in this book now. I open it up and the book says, you really ought to use this over the course of six to eight weeks. This isn't really going to help you if it's the night before the test. I then promptly threw it under the bed. [laughing] I never did prep for the SAT myself. And so I didn't do as hot on the SAT, [laughs]
But later on with the GRE, then I did take Kaplan test prep before taking the GRE. But I've always thought that was a little bit funny because it sort of captured, even with my sister's help, the tendency of young people to not always take the advice that adults provide them.
Smith: Turns out, doesn't it, that that's going on.
McCorkell: Yeah. Now that I have a seven year old I'm starting to experience it firsthand, so. [laughter]
Smith: Tell us about how this system works. First of all, you're relying on AmeriCorps volunteers. That's another idea that came to you along the way. What do you do, how do you help young people, first of all, get into college?
McCorkell: The organization is called College Possible and we really have two parts to it. One is to get the kids into college, and then to support them while they're in college so that they graduate. We're certainly not the first group that's ever tried to get low income kids to go to college. Lots of different people try to do it, and the federal government has programs that are designed to do this. But we were the first in the country to use AmeriCorps members to do it. Some people aren't that familiar with AmeriCorps, but you can think of it like a domestic Peace Corps.
Smith: These are not necessarily teachers, it's not like these are Teach for America.
McCorkell: Right. Teach for America people are actually technically AmeriCorps members, but like Teach for America, our AmeriCorps members are recent college graduates. Our key innovation was to find really idealistic, recent college graduates who are really hungry to try to change the world the kind of people who go into Teach for America. I think what we ask our corps members to do is a little bit more narrow in scope than trying to be a professional teacher. I think that can be a big job to take on, right out of college.
But what we do is take these recent college graduates, pair them with a group of low income students in the students' junior and senior year. Then the students meet with their we call these AmeriCorps members their coach.
They really function like a middle class parent, as I was say earlier. They meet twice a week after school for the junior and senior year with a lot of weekend work, a lot of campus visits, and a lot of practice for the ACT exam. In all, it's about 320 hours of time on task over those two years. It's really intensive.
That's, I think, sort of the magic of our program, is to harness this spirit of national service. Because this is a generation of college graduates who really hungry to give something back to the world, and they're pretty idealistic. Sometimes it's a little bit latent, and sometimes it's a little bit under the surface.
I always say, this is kind of the Jon Stewart generation where they've been raised in a somewhat cynical environment, where every night he's sort of poking fun at all the people in power and how they're always doing something wrong. But many of them have the idealism right on the surface. In the rest it emerges when you give them the opportunity to really change someone's life.
Smith: Do most of them come from more privileged backgrounds?
McCorkell: Well, you'd think that they would. In general, in AmeriCorps, I would say that is true. Most people who do AmeriCorps service are probably from middle class or upper middle class families in part because you don't earn very much money. You earn a very modest living stipend. It's less that $12,000 a year. It's really like virtually volunteering. In our case, what's been really exciting for us is that we are increasingly seeing a lot of people who went through our program as low income students, went off to college, graduated, and are now coming back to serve others, and oftentimes in the same school they attended. In our case, we do end up with...
We really value first generation college graduates. We count that as a key form of diversity for our organization. We actually have quite a lot that come back and do that. For all of the people who serve with us, it's an enormous sacrifice. We ask our corps members to really work extremely long hours. It's not unusual for them to put in 50 60 or more hours a week.
Smith: Are you breaking the law?
McCorkell: No, actually. The nice thing about national service is it's exempt from...This is the thing that drives me crazy because I grew up as a good liberal and workplace laws, they're there for a reason.
Smith: Now, you're running a sweatshop.
McCorkell: Yeah, now I'm running a sweatshop. [laughs] But, the key thing about our sweatshop is that we're not...There's some of them in the audience today. I can see... The thing that's interesting is we never saw to a corps member, "We'd like you to work 60 or 70 hours a week." We just hand them a group of students and say, "Their lives are in your hands." You know what happens?
Smith: That focuses the attention, yes.
McCorkell: That focuses their attention, and what they do is they treat them like they're their own children. The language our corps members use is they'll talk about their kids. They really get to be like their kids. In a lot of ways, that's exactly the role they play.
Smith: How do you identify...? How do the kids get into the program? Is it an opt in? Do you go out and recruit?
McCorkell: Yeah, it's an opt in. We're looking for students. I would say it's a bit of an art form to find the kids we're looking for. We're looking for low income. Almost all of them are students of color. But, we're looking for kids that have the potential to succeed in a four year college if they could get there. You're kind of looking for kids. Some kids are going to do great, and they're 4.0 kids, and they're going to probably get to college on their own. Then, there's other kids that are probably really struggling even to finish high school, and that's not really our group, either.
We're trying to find kids in sort of that academic middle who need this help. We have about 29 partner high schools in the three major metropolitan areas that we serve.
Smith: And that's the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Omaha.
McCorkell: That's right, and we're in the process of growing. Our goal is to get to 10 cities and serve 20,000 students. We now reach a little less than 9,000 students. In those high schools, we do a recruitment process where we're inviting students to apply. We try to make sure every student in the school knows about our program and knows how to apply and feels welcomed to do it.
What's interesting is there's just no shortage of low income kids in this country who are just dying to get into a program like this. That's what's leading us to try to grow it. We always have hundreds of more kids applying to be in the program who are qualified to be in the program, low income, meet our criteria who we don't have the resources to serve yet, and that's what a lot of what drives our desire to grow.
Smith: As you say, you're not the only organization doing this. Clearly, there aren't enough organizations and support systems to meet the need. What is that you're doing that is different from others aside from the fact that you're using these AmeriCorps volunteers and you sort of have people who are just out of college, so they really have a fresh experience of college? In terms of how you're working with students on the college access part, what makes what you're doing unique?
McCorkell: Well, I think there's two ways to answer it. One is on the content side. But, the biggest one is that we get the best results of anyone in our field. Since we started 12 years ago, 98 percent of all kids who have ever come through our program have earned admission to college. Almost all of those kids enroll in college. Then, of those kids that have enrolled in college, nearly 80 percent have either graduated or are persisting toward their degree.
The first thing I always say is we get remarkable results, and that's really driven, as we've been discussing, by this AmeriCorps model. But, I think the other part that really makes it powerful and makes it potentially scalable for our country is that the cost is so low. It kind of goes back again to the sweatshop metaphor of the fact that these guys aren't earning very much money and they're essentially volunteering their energy toward this drives our cost way down.
So, compared to the most similar federally funded program, we're about one seventh the cost. If you think about it from that perspective, we're in a time in our government right now where there don't seem to be enough resources to meet the needs of our country, and we're going to have to find ways to be more and more efficient. I think the potential to scale a model like this that gets outstanding results at a small fraction of the cost of our programs represents a really important opportunity for the country.
Smith: Once young people have gotten into college, one thing that we know from statistics is that the completion rate in American colleges and universities is woefully low, surprisingly low. Fewer than half, actually, of all people who start their college career actually end up getting a degree in this country. A lot of those folks who aren't making it through to completion are people who are going to public institutions and are coming from less advantaged backgrounds.
Among the things that are key as I understand it for young people to stay in school and make it, one of them is called academic tenacity, I think, by some of the experts out there. You may have a different term for it, but I wonder if you can...It's more than academic preparation. It's more than what you've learned in high school. It's skills to make it in college.
Can you describe those and talk about how you prepare people, young people, who may not have quite as many of these tools as they need?
McCorkell: Yeah, I think one of the things that middle class families sort of teach their kids is that you can do it, and I think middle class people understand clearly the link between working hard and getting a positive outcome. In many families that suffer from multi generational intense poverty, that connection between hard work and positive outcomes is much less obvious. Often times, in families like that, there's not much evidence that if you just work hard, it'll all work out. I think one of the things that students learn in our program is how to work hard at something and see that it's going to get a positive outcome. For example, in our high school program, one of the things we try to do is to get the students to be academically prepared for college by helping them, ultimately, as measured by the ACT exam.
These kids take four full length practice ACT exams on Saturday mornings. I often say, "That's pretty close to torture to make somebody take that test four times early on a Saturday morning," but lots of times, we have kids that have perfect attendance at that, and they work really hard and they do this over 20 weeks.
I think one of the things that happens besides the fact that their scores go up a lot...This last year, here in the Twin Cities, our scores went up well over 20 percent from the baseline to the final administration of that exam, and that's important to getting into college. But, maybe even more important is beginning to see the linkage between that effort and that outcome, so they start to say, "Boy, when I dedicate myself to something, I can get the positive outcome that I want."
I think that the AmeriCorps coaches help them also learn some of the coping skills. I don't know if it's exactly what you're talking about, but it's about a resilience that you need to overcome obstacles when they get in your way. Most middle class people have that, and I think if you come from a low income family, oftentimes, it's harder to have faith that that hard work is going to pay off.
Smith: You're not suggesting that low income families aren't engaged in hard work.
McCorkell: No, I'm not. What I'm saying is oftentimes, they don't see the linkage between the hard work and the positive outcome.
Smith: The delayed gratification, the investing in something that may come true two years from now when you're dealing with immediate problems right in front of you, like how am I going to feed the family, the car's broken, how am I going to fix that, etc.
McCorkell: Right. What I mean is if you're coming from a family where there's been multi generational concentrated poverty, your parents may have been working really hard for a long time and you're still poor. My family, my dad worked very hard and it was hard to get ahead. He didn't have a college degree. Those jobs don't pay very much. You see him working really hard and you don't always see that connection. Going to the data you were citing at the beginning of your question, I think the one that always shocks me the most is if you look at who earns a four year college degree six years after high school graduation, if you look at students from the upper income core tile, which is basically a family income of about $108,000 and above, over 80 percent of those students will earn a four year college degree within six years of high school graduation.
Do you know what it is for students from the lowest income core tile from families about $38,000 and below? It's eight percent. In other words, in this country in 2012, students from upper income families are 10 times more likely to earn four year college degree than their low income counterparts. At college possible, we just think that's outrageous. We think it's not fair to those students and it's not good for our country.
Smith: Is it, do you think, primarily because the students are not well prepared for the academic experience, once they get there? Or is it that they have life issues that get in the way? Or a mix of both?
McCorkell: It's a mixture of both. Unfortunately, a lot of low income students go to schools that are underperforming. They don't always have the best teachers. A lot of time the best teachers choose to move to a suburban school. There are a lot of challenges there. A lot of urban schools just don't...
Smith: High schools, you mean.
McCorkell: High schools. Urban high schools are under performing. Sometimes it's about the academic preparation. But there are a lot of other factors at play. It's something this country's going to need to deal with. Because if you look at a variety of issues, one is if you look at your earning potential if you get a four year college degree you've essentially broken the cycle of poverty for that student and their family, forever. Because you're very unlikely to suffer from poverty if you get a four year college degree. There's that dimension.
But there's also a larger dimension for our society and for our country, which is almost all of the job growth is in jobs that require some kind of higher education, and especially a four year degree. The fact that we could have this 10 times difference is outrageous at multiple levels. It indicates to me that we've really got to prioritize this and do something about it. That includes, to the point of your question, we need to invest more in our public schools and make sure that students get the academic preparation they need.
We certainly need to keep college more affordable. But we also need to invest in programs like ours that help students get to college and succeed when they get there. Because one of the things I would like listeners to hear is that we're doing this with thousands of students. They go through our program and they get into college the colleges are eager to have them and then they succeed when they get there. We want people to hear that and know that. We estimate there are at least 200,000 kids in this country that could benefit from a program like ours that kind of meet our criteria. You can only imagine how much stronger and vibrant our country would be if all 200,000 of those kids got a fair chance to make the most of their life.
Smith: Are you aiming these students at any particular kind of college, in terms of affordability? Are you aiming them at public institutions? Or are you trying to help them primarily get into more elite private institutions that may have lots of scholarship and tuition aid?
McCorkell: Well, we certainly are aiming to get our kids into four year programs. That's our purpose, though about 20% of our students in a typical year will enroll in a community college or a two year college. Though, even there our hope is that they will get that degree and then transfer and go to a four year school. We stay relatively agnostic about what kind of four year school they go to. Here in Minnesota we've typically seen roughly a third of our kids go into the University of Minnesota system, a little less than that more recently. About a third going into one of the MnSCU schools, and about a third going to the Minnesota private schools. We actually are seeing our students enroll roughly in the proportion, in those institutions, that middle class students enroll.
To that extent, we're really happy about that. Our goal, really, is not to say one type of institution is necessarily the best, or better than the other, but to make sure that our students have a fair chance to go to the school that's best for them.
Smith: For a lot of lower income families, the strategy of starting out at a community college for a couple of years and sort of dealing with those basic fundamental courses, the general education courses like mathematics and entry level social sciences, entry level humanities. That has been a strategy where people have been able to save money by going to a two year college for a while and then transferring into a more expensive four year college to do the last two years. Do you agree with that approach? It sounds like you're not aiming at two year colleges.
McCorkell: We're not, really. It's an interesting theory. What I'd like to see is some evidence that works for very many people. Because I think our experience, at least, in our organization, is that one of the big challenges for our students are the transition points. Transition from high school to college is a big change, and then getting, if you do this plan where you start at a two year school, transition into a four year school, and getting the credits to transfer, and navigating your way through that, those are the places where people get lost.
I hear a lot of people talk about that plan. We don't see as much evidence that it works very well. If you could execute on that it's a pretty good plan, in that it does allow you to get your degree for less money and still get a four year degree. But the other part that's missing from that argument that I think is really important and that a lot of times gets missed when people make this case, is that a lot of what you learn in college isn't just academic book learning.
It's not just math or literature or science. It's how to interact. Like, when I got to Carleton a big part of what I learned was how to act like a middle class person. So that when I got out, I would know how to interview for a job and I would know how to socialize in a way that all of the people I'd be competing for jobs would. I sometimes worry that students who commute to a community college for two years and then transfer, they're going to miss some of the richness that comes from campus life.
Smith: Well there's a whole movement in this country that suggests that to be able to have more people get access to quality education, we need to increasingly separate education from a bricks and mortar place. There is a great push to increase access to education through fully online institutions.
As you know, some very prestigious institutions like Harvard and MIT have recently joined together to say that they are going to offer much of their course ware, if you will, free to massive, open classes around the world. But this wouldn't fit in your scheme of things, because it sounds like aiming people in that direction, that would miss an important part of what you describe as being the college experience.
McCorkell: Well I think that's true. I do think that. I think that using technology alone for education is going to miss something that's really important in the learning experience. One of the things that a lot of people talk about is the idea of sort of flipping it. So the idea would be that students might listen to the lecture as their homework.
Smith: Online. They'd watch a video of the lecturer and...
McCorkell: Yeah. Maybe you have the best history professor at Harvard give the best history lecture and students all across the country are watching that lecture. But then when you get to your college, you spend time with the professor discussing it and engaging on it. That starts to, I think, bring back some of the richness. But I will say something has to give in the cost of higher education. It's just not acceptable that it keeps going up way beyond the rate of inflation.
I think about when I started at Carleton College in 1986, the tuition, a comprehensive fee was $12,000. But the time I graduated four years later it was $18,000. It went up 50% in four years. Now the top private schools are well above $50,000 a year. Something has got to give. We've got to find some kind of way to harness technology to both make education more available to people, but also to bring down the cost. I think the online education really has a lot to offer people who are in their careers.
There are a lot of people who have started college and not finished. There are a lot of people who maybe have a two year degree, but if they had a four year degree they could get a promotion. They could earn more. They could be more productive. That's the place where I think there's a lot of richness. But for the traditional college age group, the kids coming out of high school, going to college, I still think there's a lot to be gained that's not academic, that's socializing.
Smith: There's been another direction that in the past, anyway, led to social mobility for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum, and that was technical and trade schools. You hear quite frequently, here in Minnesota and everywhere else, employers and employer groups complaining that they can't find technically trained people for a certain category or a certain range of jobs. What about that as an approach for some of the students that you're talking about? Where does trade school and technical school fit into this?
McCorkell: Well I think there's a place for it. I'm a little touchy on this subject, though, because one of the things I find interesting is... I talk with a lot of people who say, well, maybe not everybody should be aiming for a four year college, right? I don't argue that everybody should aim for a four year college. I think four year college is probably for some people and two year college might be for others, and even less might be for someone else.
But I think it is clear that we, as a society, need to make sure everybody gets some kind of post secondary education. The question really becomes, who's supposed to go to our community colleges and technical colleges? It's pretty rare that I meet with a doctor or a lawyer or a businessperson who hopes that their daughter is going to go get a certificate in welding. Right?
Usually I think people are talking about somebody else's children are the ones that are supposed to go to those schools. I think a good moral test for our society is to ask yourself what you'd want for your own children. I think it's a good test of whether we should go to war or not is to say, "Would I be willing for my child to die for this cause?" I think when people make this argument about community college, they better be comfortable saying that maybe it'd be their own child who'd go there.
Smith: Public opinion polls in this country show that most Americans feel that their children should go to college. But they also feel that most other peoples' children should not necessarily go to college. That's a fact.
McCorkell: [laughing] Right. Yeah.
Smith: How long do you stay with the students? Do you stay with them through all four years?
McCorkell: We do. We stay with the students in college. A couple of years back our board really wrestled with the question of where should our mission begin and end? For a while our name used to be Admission Possible, meaning let's just get the kids into college, sort of turn them over to the institution of higher ed, and let it be their responsibility to get the students to graduate.
Smith: But then you had a trademark issue with Tom Cruise, right, and you had to change the name?
McCorkell: [laughs] The trademark issue was somebody, but it wasn't Tom Cruise. But as we really wrestled with it we said, it would not be success to be sending these kids off to college and just leave it at that, as you mentioned. It's a surprisingly low number of people who finish college. Among all people who start a four year college degree, only about 37% graduate within four years, and if you extend it to six years, it's about 57%. Which is pretty breathtaking, to think over 40% of all people who start a four year college degree don't finish it. That's mainly made up of middle class people who have a lot of resources.
That led us, as an organization, to say we need to work on the college success portion. I think that is another as you asked earlier, what distinguishes us? I think this is a distinguishing feature of our work is that we're really focused on helping students stay in college, navigate those obstacles, and be sure to graduate. That's newer work for us, and we're trying a variety of different methods to do that.
But it's really important, because, in many ways, the worst thing that could happen would be you go off to college, you maybe incur some debt, and then you never earn the degree. In a lot of ways that's almost worse than not going at all. We really want to work hard to make sure that that doesn't happen for our students.
Smith: In terms of getting students into college and then succeeding in college, I assume that all young people from lower income families are not the same, that there are also cultural issues, in addition to class issues, that confront them. I wonder if you can talk about some of the different cultural groups that you work with, and the particular challenges that may be presented by one group as opposed to another.
McCorkell: It's a really interesting question. My answer actually, I'll come back and give you a few, but I would say, in general, I think that one of my messages for people is there's less differences than you think. One of the disruptive forces in our society is people who think every ethnic group needs to be handled in a totally different way and it's so unique and so different. For example, we don't see any variation in our results by racial background, or by gender. What's interesting is African American students do just as well in our program as Hmong or as African immigrant students do or Latino students, so...
Smith: But there's been a lot of talk about the need for culturally sensitive education systems and programs that will prepare students in a culturally appropriate way to enter the mainstream.
McCorkell: Yes. I don't want to be too doctrinaire about this, I'm not saying that there's no room for that, but I think people should be careful not to always assume that's the case. Because I think there's a lot of... It's a lot easier to scale something if you can have common elements. One of the things that we like is that our model seems to work really well with very different kinds of students. But nonetheless, there are some real interesting differences.
I remember when we first started out, for example, I wasn't very familiar with the Hmong culture, which here in St. Paul is a huge number of our students. I remember one of our first students, when we very first started out, we only had 35 students and we had one student named Lily Mua who ended up going on to St. Olaf and ultimately got which kind of killed me as a Carleton person to have her go to St. Olaf but then she eventually went to the Humphrey School. She's just doing great today. But I remember her teaching me and our organization a lot about Hmong culture.
One of the things that she experienced and a lot of Hmong girls experience is they come from families that have very traditional values by Western standards. The dads often are not that supportive of their daughters going off to college, that scares them. A lot of times there's a lot of pressure on them to get married young and to stay home and do the cooking and the cleaning.
I remember one of the things she did at Arlington High School, and that was open in St. Paul, but she did a roleplaying exercise where she had some parents try to imagine the world as the student, and the students try to imagine the world as the parents. It just sort of opened my eyes. There are some real obstacles there that Hmong students face. There are some variations. But overall, I think it's important not to over emphasize our differences and instead to try to find the commonalities.
Smith: How much do you have to work with parents in addition to the young people to make college possible?
McCorkell: That's a great question. So much of the things you hear at the conferences we go to about college access, "Oh, you've got to engage the parents, you've got to engage the parents," and what's interesting is we don't engage the parents very much. In the early years we tried, and I remember Augsburg once hosted an event we were going to do for parents in our early years. We phone banked it, we called all the parents, we sent home stuff. I think about six parents came. They were probably the six parents we didn't need to be there. These were the six parents who were on it.
Smith: They would have been there anyway.
McCorkell: Yeah. Those kids had parents who were really a big help. One of the things that you find is that the parents are busy. They're working hard. A lot of times they're very intimidated. A lot of our students are from immigrant families where they maybe don't speak the language. The idea of engaging is really difficult. What we have found is that we at least need the parents to agree for their student to be in the program, and to sign up. The parents and the students essentially sign a contract. The kid saying, "I'll be in it," and the parents saying. "I agree." It's often surprising to people how little time we spend with the parents.
But I think, in general, when you're working with low income populations, I've reached the conclusion the amount of time you need to spend with the parent is sort of in relation to the age of the student. If we were working on early childhood literacy, for example, I think it's much more important to engage the parents there. Because you're going to have a long time for the payoff. Whereas in our case we're working with students, by the time they're 16, 17 years old, it's a lot of effort to engage those parents, and soon the students are going to be out of the house and be adults anyway. That's a little bit how we handle the parent thing.
Smith: How long have College Possible and Admission Possible, you've been at this for 10, 12 years?
McCorkell: Yeah, it's about 12 years.
Smith: And you say your success rate is substantially higher than your peers or your competitors or however you might describe them.
McCorkell: Yeah. One of the questions that sometimes a probing person will say is, well how do you know? Yes, 98% of your kids got into college, but how do you know we weren't just finding kids there were really good kids who were probably going to get to college anyway? That's a good question, because we have kids that show up.
Smith: How do you know? Since I'm a probing person.
McCorkell: [laughs] Yeah, right. Well, we're working on an answer. The first part of our answer is, we have a Harvard study that took a look at students who went through our program and compared it to very similar students in all respects low income, mostly students of color who didn't go through our program. This study showed that we're more than doubling the students' chances of enrolling in a four year college. So that's a pretty good base of evidence.
But that same scholar, his name's Chris Avery out of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, did that study. He's also doing a randomized, controlled trial evaluation of our work, which is where we're able to look at randomizing it. We had a group of students that applied to be in the program. We didn't have the resources to serve all of them. Some were put into our program and some weren't. Then we're going to track them and see what happens.
We're at the tail end of a two year portion of that evaluation. That's sort of the gold standard in the nonprofit community, if you can have a randomized, controlled trial evaluation. These are used with pharmaceuticals and drugs and a lot of medical tests. That will provide us with really strong evidence that what we do really does work.
We think that will position us to expand rapidly. Our goal we had McKinsey & Company help us build a strategic plan for growth. We're trying to grow here in the Twin Cities, continue to grow in Milwaukee and Omaha. But we have a vision of initially trying to get to 10 cities, and at least 20,000 students, and maybe someday all 200,000 students who could benefit from what we're doing.
Smith: If I may probe a little further, if you are so successful, at least as far as you can demonstrate so far, and you're so cheap, because, as you say, you're working with nearly volunteers in the AmeriCorps system, how come you haven't caught on much faster than you have?
McCorkell: Well, I think we are catching on. We're starting to get a lot of national recognition these days. But part of it was, we wanted to build a base of evidence. There are a lot of nonprofits who have some charismatic leader who goes out and starts selling everybody on the idea before there's any evidence that it really works.
There's a guy named Jeff Braddock who used to be a professor at the Harvard Business School. He wrote a really great article about how to take an organization to scale. He says the first thing you need to do is have some reasonable evidence that it actually works. I think part of what we did maybe this is just being from the Midwest, where we take pretty seriously our sense of integrity, but we wanted to make sure we had good evidence that what we do really works. We now have that, and we formed a national office that's headquartered here in the Twin Cities.
We're just in the process now of trying to launch this in a lot more cities and hopefully accelerate it. Because when you think about 200,000 kids, at least, who could use this help, and knowing that we have a solution that seems so effective, that's what keeps me up at night how could we do this faster? How could we do this more successfully?
But it's hard to scale a nonprofit organization, that's one of the other things. I often say, if we were a for profit organization, this might be about the time where we'd go public. The investors would line up because they'd say, you perform a service better than anyone else in the field at a lower cost than almost anyone else. Let's take this, let's go. But in the nonprofit community, what you actually sometimes find is the opposite.
People say, "Oh, you're doing so well, you don't need our money. We're going to go give our money to this other struggling nonprofit that can barely make ends meet." Maybe that's a topic for a different show, but I think that's not a wise use of philanthropic resources. I think we ought to invest them in the things that actually work, and take those things to scale.
Smith: Is it also that you're working with a population that a lot of folks don't necessarily care about?
McCorkell: Well I hope not. In general, I think, people care a lot about education. But there's some of that. An awful lot of philanthropic dollars are given to things that aren't directly related to alleviating poverty. That can be frustrating. But I think part of it, also, is us getting our message out there and helping people in this community and other communities know that we exist and that this works.
I remember Bill Clinton saying one time when he was President, "Somewhere, someplace, somebody is solving just about every problem you can think of." The challenge is, how do you take them to scale? I think our longer term vision, if we can get to 10 cities and serve 20,000 students and keep the results we've got and continue to add to our base of evidence, I think what the future for us would be is to look and say, "Maybe some of the money the federal government is currently spending on similar programs could be better spent on a model like ours."
So not try to spend more money, but reallocate that money to a model like ours." I think that's sort of the pathway for our model to really scale to meet the full need in this country.
Smith: Students are leaving college more and more and debt, and that has become, some people say, a national crisis in terms of the level of debt that students are getting out of college with. How do you deal with advising your low income students about what amount of debt they should take on and how they should go about affording college?
McCorkell: Well, that's a great question. It is an increasingly important issue as tuition continues to go up and most sources of aid are not keeping up. Here in Minnesota, the state grant program is not keeping up. At the federal level, the Pell Grant is not keeping up with increasing costs of tuition. It's a big issue.
We do spend quite a bit of time with our students first in the high school portion of our program trying to teach them about financial literacy. But, broadly speaking, it's not just about this part. In general, it's about debt. We live in a society where an awful lot of people take on an awful lot of debt, and it is a big challenge.
There have been a lot of headlines lately about how we've just crossed the threshold where there's now a trillion dollars of student loan debt in our country. It's hard to know what does that mean exactly, but it's more than the total amount of debt that people hold on their credit cards. It's getting to be a lot of debt. In general, I think most people still agree that it's good debt. The amount of money that a person's going to earn by going to college compared to just graduating from high school, you'll earn about a million dollars more over a lifetime.
Even when the cost is high, it's still a good investment. That's our main message to students, but we're also trying to help them navigate the decision making process so when they see their financial aide award, trying to help them make sense out of it.
A good rule of thumb is to aim to not take on more debt in your college career than you expect to earn annually in your first year out. As a country, we're starting to approach the tipping point on that. The average in this country among people who take on debt, it's approaching $30,000. It's in the upper 20s now. There aren't a lot of entry level jobs that pay a lot more than that, so we're actually getting to a point where across the board, this is a big challenge for our country.
Smith: Tell us one or two stories, certainly favorites of yours, if you like, but also a story as well that demonstrates the tenacity or the difficulties that students overcome.
McCorkell: There's so many you could tell. The ones I remember the best are the ones that started at the beginning. I told you a little bit of the story about Lilly, who went to Saint Olaf, but I'd be remiss if I didn't tell the story about her classmate, Kalani Abdullali, who was in our first group also at Irvington High School. Thank goodness she went to Carlton, which gave me a little bit of relief from Lilly breaking my heart and going to Saint Olaf.
Kalani went to Carlton. She's a Somali immigrant. She came to this country not speaking English and had parents who'd do just about anything to help her get to college. The thing that was really interesting...She went on and ended up going to the University of Minnesota and is a lawyer now. So, just a perfect example of the success story of our program.
The thing that was really interesting that we're starting to see is several of her younger siblings, then, joined our program and also went to Carlton. You see that, but you also see some students in our program that just face such breathtakingly difficult circumstances.
We have a blog on our website where we ask our coaches and others to share some stories. Just the other day, there was a blog post by one of our AmeriCorps coaches named Chelsea, and she had a student named Raymond. She was telling this story about the day he came to school and said, "We're homeless today. We don't have any place to go," and how you try to marshall the resources to help a person find a place to go home to, to have a place to sleep.
That's something that most of us don't ever have to face. You just sort of try to put yourself...We have a set of core values in our organization. One of them is to try to imagine walking in someone else's moccasins. If you try to imagine what it would be like to not know where you're going to go to bed tonight while you're trying to navigate high school and get to college, it just about knocks you down.
Our students face enormous difficulties, ones that really do sometimes make you cry because they're so hard to hear, but our AmeriCorps members work in partnership with the schools and the counseling system and other non profits and other social service providers, and they found a place for Raymond to get some housing and to get going. He's been winning scholarships like crazy and is now going to be heading off to college.
Smith: What about the students who don't make it? While most do, some don't. Why is that? Do you remember a story of one in particular?
McCorkell: Well, actually, believe it or not, we track almost down to every single student who has not made it and we know what it is. Sometimes, it's a pregnancy. It's sort of like what happened with my mom. You get pregnant, and if you don't have many resources, it's awfully hard to stay in college, not impossible. You can do it, and a lot of colleges try to support that. A lot of times, it's a pregnancy or a lot of times, it can end up being financial where they just can't make ends meet.
But, a lot of times, it's not a big moment. A lot of times, what happens when somebody ends up not succeeding in college is it's sort of a death by a thousand cuts. They don't have enough money, so they start working more hours and more hours, and pretty soon, they say, "Maybe I'll take a semester off, save up a little bit of money," and then, the next thing they know, they get promoted to be the manager at Domino's.
So, now they're managing Domino's, they're making a little bit more money. It feels kind of nice to make a little bit of money, finally have some breathing room. Then, the next thing they know, they just never get back to college. A lot of times, that's how the story unfolds.
We try to stay in touch with those kids and say, "It's never too late to get back to college. You can always go back to college. If you do, your future's going to be a lot brighter."
Smith: Let's open it up now to questions from the audience. Tell us your name and where you're from.
Rick: I'm Rick and I'm from Minneapolis. I have a daughter who's now going from her junior to her senior year and is learning that she doesn't have enough time to study for the DRE or the ACT, and at the same time, taking a number of the college level courses that she's been encouraged to take. A few months ago, we had an expert on college education here who suggested that in that situation, the student should concentrate on taking the college level courses as that will prepare her as well and maybe even better. On the other hand, you seem to have an affiliation with taking the KISS core and coaching the score. How would you advise my daughter?
McCorkell: Well, it's a really good question. They both matter, so you want to if possible try to do both because when you're applying to college, they're going to look both at your academic background, what kind of grades you got and what kind of courses you took. But, they're also going to look at that test score. What I would do is I would push really hard to have her do both, but I would agree with the other person you heard from. If I had to choose, I would say focus on the academic work.
Harry: Hi, I'm Harry. I'm from Jerusalem, Israel. My question is what part of the high schools are educating the students towards colleges? Because, in my country, a lot of high schools fail to do so because our emphasis is on grades and not on education. It's teaching the curriculum instead of educating the students. How is it in Minnesota and the USA?
McCorkell: One of the things that is shocking, especially here in Minnesota, is the ratio of counselors to students. It's extremely bad here.
Smith: In fact, Minnesota has one of the lowest academic school counselor ratios to student in the country.
McCorkell: Yeah, we're either dead last or second to last, usually with California. We don't have enough counselors. We need more counselors. That's one thing. But, we also, as we talked about earlier, we need the school system itself to be educating kids better.
Even if you look at the most elite private schools, they don't have that many counselors. They have a much better counselor to student ratio than urban schools, but it's not that huge. Those counselors still have pretty big loads. But, what you see at those private schools that are really successful at sending all of their kids off to college, and especially elite colleges, is better ratios for the counseling, but also, really good teaching, and then, the third part is really involved parents.
When you can get those things, a lot of things start to align. One of the problems with low income students is a lot of times, their parents either can't or won't or just don't get involved at the level they need to. Then, you've got counselors that maybe have 500 or 600 kids. You couldn't expect any counselor to handle that very well.
That's where I think we need some community resources to come in, and that's where I think all these recent college graduates...It wouldn't be hard at all to imagine having 5,000 or 10,000 recent college graduates going out in this country doing something like our model, probably not doing it for us, but doing it somehow in our model. That would be a major help to the school system.
John: John from Bloomington. 35 years working with kids and I just want to thank you for what you've done. I'm thinking of a number of students who either have perhaps or would benefit from this program. You don't want to mess with a good mission statement, and you don't want to mess with a model that's working very well, obviously, but I'm wondering if it could be leveraged some if your AmeriCorps slightly paid volunteers would be willing to mentor professionals, let's say, perhaps retirees. Post 9/11, there were some people who left a profession and came into education, for example. Maybe we don't have that level of interest now, but it seems to me that one of the byproducts would be that more people would become aware on a personal level of the value of paying more attention, I'll say, to people who tend not to get much information, much press, much support.
McCorkell: Well, it's a great suggestion. This is a little bit of a twist on what you're saying, but one of the big resources our country's going to have is baby boom generation that's going to be retiring that's going to be largely very healthy and largely very well off. We've got to find a way to kind of harness their energy. I think that's a huge source of energy for all kinds of problems that we face. Finding a way to more systematically get especially recent retirees into our schools, help little kids learn how to read. They could be integrated into our program. We haven't done very much of that, but one of the things we're piloting this year in partnership with a New York City based organization called I Mentor is a program where it's sort of a technology based mentoring program. They sort of give us some of the guidance.
Then, this year, we did it with 100... We had 100 people who are working in this community who agreed to mentor a student with this kind of technology enabled structure so that it's not too daunting. If you travel for work, you can still fit it in. The key thing, I think, that you're putting your finger on is what we've got to say as a society is we've got to find every resource we can to bring to bear on this problem and downstream, getting more kids to learn how to read, to get better science education, all this...There's lots of problems. We've got to find a way to do it.
The reason I'm so excited about national service is I think it's so powerful. It's cheap, but it's also really powerful because, to your point, it helps people get connected to one another, and it builds our citizenship, and it rebuilds our sense of community that we are connected to each other and our future is interdependent.
We haven't done exactly what you're saying, but I think there are examples of that kind of thing that really are effective and valuable.
Jeff: Hi, my name is Jeff. I'm from Saint Paul. I want to thank both of you, and you in particular for the work you're doing. Breaking down the barriers to going to college is something in complete agreement with. I think one of the barriers is funding, as you've brought up. In Minnesota, we are at 1998 dollars in the MnSCU system, educating 50,000 more students with the same actual dollars we had in 1998. As recently as 10 years ago, the state paid two thirds of the cost of a college education. Now, it pays about 40 percent. The increase in tuition is the state dollars that no longer go to subsidize the cost of public education.
One of the barriers is putting that money back into higher education. It was only 10 years ago that we fulfilled that. There's a report that just came out from the Center for the Future of Higher Education that shows that in the United States last year, 400,000 students were turned away from community colleges, and about 100,000 students were turned away from four year schools in states as different as Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, all over the country. 400,000 students who can't get into community colleges because the classes aren't being offered. That's a barrier that's impossible to overcome. I think that when we...I think that we need to talk about public education in that terms as well. As recently as 10 years ago, people were able to go to college, and now they can't. The University of Minnesota turned away, I think, 7,000 community college transfers and said, "We're not going to take them." I just don't think that's right.
McCorkell: I think you're putting your finger on a couple of really interesting points. One is, it went to our earlier conversation, and I think technology could be part of the answer to that. There could be a way, and there are...That's working better and better. To the first part of your question, the thing that a lot of people are just not recognizing that's happening in this state and in states all across the country is that legislators who don't have enough money to pay for everything, they've got to cut something, and so they think, "Well, we can cut higher education because they can fill it in with tuition," and you can't do that with most other things.
It leads to a, I think, kind of an, I would say, easy solution that's a really bad one because the trend ends up being the tuition goes up and up and up, the debt burden becomes unmanageable, and it's leading us in a really bad direction. That is another great point.
We are going to need to increase our capacity in the education system to reach all the people who want to college. It is a shame when there's...The irony that's kind of funny, not funny, but kind of ironic is that a lot of times, the colleges actually get rewarded by how many people they turn away.
If you want to move up the US news and world report ranking...
Smith: Selectivity and endowment are the two key things.
McCorkell: The best way to do it is to try to get as many applicants as you can to reject. It's so much work to apply to college and all of that. It's like we've got some of these crazy incentive systems at play.
Paul Espanol: Hi, my name is Paul Espanol. I'm an international student from Saudi Arabia. I actually just graduated from here, the U of M, so I applaud the work that you and your team are doing. My question is related to the point that the gentleman made previously about the funding and with student debt being higher than credit card debt now and that you're trying to help students work through that. My question, then, is is there a risk in scaling up too quickly where you come from 9,000 students competing for these loans to going to 200,000? Is that something that's just in the realm of public policy and that you can't do anything about it or are you thinking that this is a real risk that we can change our business model around to be able to answer that?
McCorkell: Well, I think that's a good pressure to put on the system. I think we need to be educating more people, and if more people are knocking on the door, that is going to lead to the change we want. We've got to have that. The scaling question is it's a challenge at that level. That's probably the more important one, as you could imagine, too big a line of people trying to get into college.
Smith: It's a problem you're willing to have.
McCorkell: I think it'd be a good problem for our society to see and to have, rather than having so many people never even try. But, the other one, just for an organization itself, and I thought this is maybe where the question was going, is it's hard to scale a non profit. We talked a little bit about the funding mechanism challenge, but it's also just hard to build. You've got a lot of people. We started this in a spare bedroom in my apartment when it was just me, and I did every thing. Then, eventually, we opened an office and there was a few of us. Now, we have 130 FTEs in the organization and about a $6 million budget, and you've got to account for all that money, and you've got to go raise all that money, and you've got to hold everybody accountable and keep everybody happy and make sure everybody gets a good end of the year party, all the different things it takes to run an organization.
It's also the question of how would you scale our actual operation, as well, which is another...That's one of the challenges that I'm spending a lot of time thinking about right now.
Fatima: Hello, my name is Fatima, and I'm from Jordan. Actually, I have two questions. The first question is you mentioned before that you're dealing with students with monk families, and we have a lot of reserve families in Jordan, back home, and I just want to know what is the way you use to convince such parents of letting their daughter to go and study and to be in that college community? The second question is more personal. There must be a time when you were doing your business you wanted to quit. What was your motivation of like let you just go? Thank you.
McCorkell: It's funny. I think there are people in this room, some of our corps members, who might know the answer to your first question better than I do. I don't quite know how we get it to happen because it's very rare, actually, that we have a monk student who doesn't actually go to college because they end up deferring to their parents. I guess it is that, in the broader sense as we were talking about earlier, we're arming our students to deal with the various obstacles. In this case, sometimes, it's actually their parents. That's actually not uncommon, the parents...
I remember one story that I have is when I was a senior in high school and I had been accepted to Carlton, and my dad, at that time, was a painter, and he was the foreman on the crew, and he got me a job painting the previous summer. I had been painting the previous summer and then that summer, I was on this paint crew. It got to be August, and I remember one of the guys saying, "So, are you going to be professional painter," and I said, "No, actually, I'm going to go to college this year."
I still remember what...This guy looks at me and he said, "No son of mine is going to go to college. A paintbrush fits in my hand, and it'll fit it in his bleepity bleep hand, too." That sort of seared me because I thought, "Gee, could you imagine having a parent that didn't want you to go to college?"
One of my great blessings was that I had a dad who actually helped me get that job on the condition that I not be a painter, just the opposite. He said, "I'll help you get this job, but you've got to promise me you will not go and be a painter your whole life because it's a really tough and often unpleasant job."
I think some of it is we help our kids just sort of overcome even their parents. They convince them that they can do both, they can be a good child, and they can also go to college.
Smith: What keeps you going in your darkest moment?
McCorkell: It's funny. People often assume there would be a lot of dark moments. I'm not a very dark person to begin with, so I haven't had too many. There are times when I get frustrated that we can't grow fast enough or I get frustrated that we can't raise enough money to do this. I often go home... I guess the darkest thing I'll say is I'll say to my wife...This year, I think we had 500 recent college graduates who wanted to be AmeriCorps members for us, and we have a line hundreds of kids deep who want to be in the program. We've got the raw ingredients. We've got the corps members who are willing to work 60 70 hours a week for $11,000 a year. We've got students who are willing to show up after school twice a week, take four full length practice exams on Saturday mornings.
We've got those ingredients and all we need is the resources to make it all happen. That's more my outrage. A lot of times I feel like a little bit...It sounds a little bit melodramatic, but this is really how I feel. I often feel like we have all this food, and there's starving people in front of us, and we're not giving out fast enough. That's what it feels like.
I feel like we have a solution that could help people really have much more fulfilling lives, and I just want to go faster. That's probably the darkest thing.
Smith: I suppose if you were a darker person, you'd have named it College Maybe. [laughter] Jim McCorkell, thank you so much. [applause]
McCorkell: Thank you.
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