Matching Top Colleges, Low Income Students

Jim Carlton
Wall Street Journal
Last year, when Amherst College welcomed 473 new students to its idyllic campus, 10% of them came from QuestBridge.
But QuestBridge is no elite private school. It’s a nonprofit start-up in Palo Alto, Calif., that matches gifted, low-income students with 20 of the nation’s top colleges. In return, the schools — including Princeton, Yale, Stanford and Columbia — give scholarships to the students and pay QuestBridge for helping to diversify their student bodies.
The program is gaining in popularity because it addresses a growing interest of private and public colleges: increasing the diversity of their student bodies without relying solely on race. Since some states banned racial preferences in college admissions, many public colleges have begun focusing on income as a means to broaden the backgrounds of their students. Private schools, while not bound by the states’ restrictions, are also eager to admit more students from low-income families.
QuestBridge isn’t the only program that helps schools achieve diversity by focusing on the economically disadvantaged. The Posse Program, launched in 1993 by a New York nonprofit, specializes in sending groups of students who already know each other to top colleges. It got its start after the founder, Deborah Biel, discovered that several of the inner-city youth she had worked with in New York had dropped out of college. When she asked why, one responded that he didn’t have his posse with him.
Another program called Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement, or MESA, helps recruit low-income students for the University of California, California State University and other California colleges. Upward Bound, a long-running federal program, feeds low-income high-school students into colleges all over the country. And some colleges, including schools that are partnering with QuestBridge, have begun their own recruiting programs for low-income students.
The efforts come as diversity remains elusive, particularly at elite colleges. According to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation, a New York-based research group, at the 146 most selective colleges in the U.S., just 3% of the students came from families that ranked in the bottom 25% in income, while 74% came from the top 25%.

School officials say that having a more diverse student body will make their graduates better prepared for the real world. “Every student we graduate today is going to work in a shrinking world with tremendous disparities,” says Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, which began using QuestBridge this academic year. “We want the Yale undergraduate body to reflect that reality to whatever degree we can.”
QuestBridge was conceived by Michael McCullough, an emergency-room doctor, in 2003, and it has been run by him and Tim Brady, who helped to write the business plan for Yahoo Inc. The program has created a network of about 30,000 recruiters, including high-school counselors, teachers and youth ministers, to identify a pool of about 4,000 talented, disadvantaged students.
QuestBridge contacts the nominees by both email and old-fashioned mail. They are asked to fill out a 17-page application that, like regular college applications, requires essays and short answers. But the questions are tailored to better suit a low-income student’s skills. For example, instead of asking why they like a particular poem, the students might be asked what obstacles they have overcome.
Last year, the pool of names was winnowed down to about 1,600 finalists based on criteria that also included income, grade point averages and community service. “We want to help those who help others,” Dr. McCullough says.
The finalists’ applications are then matched with QuestBridge partners. Last year, about half of the finalists were admitted to their match with partial to full scholarships. Those who aren’t admitted through the program can still apply to other QuestBridge partners, frequently using the QuestBridge application plus a supplement and having their application fees waived. Their names are also kept in a pool for other opportunities, such as when an employer needs an intern or law schools are seeking low-income talent down the line.
Once they’re at school, the students get support from QuestBridge mentors through online forums on Facebook and other sites. Alumni organizations that will provide mentoring are also being set up.
Each college or university that uses the program pays QuestBridge $40,000 to $70,000 annually in recruiting fees. But QuestBridge says that only half of its $1.6 million annual budget comes from those fees. The other half comes from philanthropic groups, including the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Edward Fein Foundation.
One student who has gone through QuestBridge is Dante Lamarr Benson, a 19-year-old from Camden, N.J., who is now in his sophomore year at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., with a full scholarship. An African-American, Mr. Benson says he was raised by his grandmother and made the dean’s list at a high school where as many as half of the students drop out. When he received a QuestBridge application in the mail, he was skeptical of his chances of getting into a prestigious college and reluctant to fill it out. But he did, he says, and “to simply put it, QuestBridge changed my life.”
For Dr. McCullough, the program is the second educational project. He and his wife, Ana, a lawyer, started a program in 1994 that provided an intense, five-week “boot camp” at Stanford, from which the couple received their professional degrees. But the camp required too much money and staff, so the couple replaced it with QuestBridge.
To scale up the new program, the two turned to Mr. Brady, who had left Yahoo after becoming one of the multimillionaires that helped get the company going in the 1990s. Mr. Brady, who declined a QuestBridge salary, says he was looking for a nonprofit to focus on and agreed to become chief executive after a mutual friend connected him with Dr. McCullough.
QuestBridge’s use of the Internet has allowed it to have a big impact relatively quickly. In addition to its showing at Amherst last year, 2% to 6% of the accepted freshmen at Princeton, Wellesley and Williams last year were QuestBridge applicants, and 62 QuestBridgers were accepted at Stanford. In total, the program has placed 2,300 low-income students in top colleges in the four years of its existence. By contrast, the Posse Program has placed 1,850 students in 18 years.
QuestBridge now plans to expand the program by adding 10 more colleges as partners, capping the program at 30. And next year, they plan to launch a one-week boot camp, with hundreds of low-income students converging in Palo Alto to hear from Dr. McCullough and others on what they can expect in the Ivy League and how to thrive there.
“We hope that in 10 years we’ll have added a new generation of talented and thoughtful minds to American leadership, drawn from the lowest economic spectrum,” Dr. McCullough says.
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November 16, 2007
It should perhaps be noted that the diversity being aimed for here is racial and socioeconomic diversity; intellectually and academically, these students are all top notch. –LAF