Nine Pa. colleges join national effort to fund low-income students

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More than 100 colleges and universities nationwide -- including nine in Pennsylvania -- have committed to increasing opportunities for low-income students.

President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, Thursday announced the commitments as well as those of 40 foundations, other nonprofit organizations and businesses at a White House event focused on expanding opportunities in higher education.

The list includes Carnegie Mellon University, Washington & Jefferson College and Allegheny College as well as Bryn Mawr College, Cheyney University, Franklin & Marshall College, University of Pennsylvania, Wilkes University and Montgomery County Community College.

Other organizations making commitments include Achieving the Dream, College Board, Pearson, the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the United Negro College Fund.

In addition to new commitments, the schools also listed ways they are building on existing efforts.

"Without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda," Mr. Obama told the audience.

Mr. Obama said college isn't the only path to success, but he said, "More than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable, middle-class life."

Even with the commitments, he said, "We still have a long way to go to unlock the doors to higher ed to more Americans and especially low-income Americans."

Mrs. Obama, a Princeton University graduate, said it never would have occurred to her to go to Princeton if her brother hadn't been a basketball recruit.

"I know there are so many kids out there like me, kids who have a world of potential," she said.

"It's our job to find those kids, to help them understand their potential and get them enrolled in a college that can help them meet their needs."

The event, held at the Eisenhower Executive Building, included about 80 college presidents and 40 others from foundations, other nonprofit organizations and businesses.

The day included panelists examining issues ranging from how to prepare low-income students for college to helping them gain access and succeed once they get there.

"This was an extraordinary moment of collaboration and finding there was a place where everybody's interests intersected," said W&J president Tori Haring-Smith.

"I really do believe the passion is significant and deep and broad enough that this won't be the end. It will be the beginning, " she said.

The list of commitments highlights several efforts at CMU, including a goal of having all Pell-eligible students -- about 20 percent of the undergraduate study body -- being retained and graduating at the same rates as all CMU students. To do this, transition and support services will be expanded.

CMU also is starting two programs aimed at helping under-represented K-12 students and teachers, including one offering social, professional and leadership opportunities in computer science for K-12 students and teachers and workshops introducing cutting-edge research and post-secondary opportunities.

In addition, CMU is expanding its focus on engaging and recruiting low-income students.

In a news release, CMU president Subra Suresh said, "Carnegie Mellon has a long tradition of providing educational opportunities to those striving to be the first in their family to get a university degree.

"We continue to honor our legacy of education accessibility by engaging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that they are excited about and prepared for the challenges and rigors of postsecondary education."

Ms. Haring-Smith noted her school also has a long-standing commitment to access, saying about a third of its students are the first in their families to go to college.

W&J committed to meeting the full financial need for all students from seven surrounding counties who are eligible for PHEAA grants and have grade point averages of 3.4 or higher. This is expected to help more than 100 students.

W&J awarded two "Millennial Scholarships" -- covering all costs for high-ability, low-income students -- and has made written commitments for 15 more.

It also will begin a new orientation program in 2014-15, focusing on strategies for success.

Allegheny College will make endowed scholarships a primary focus of its upcoming capital campaign, with up to $100 million to be devoted to endowed scholarships. Currently, the college offers $42 million in aid to 90 percent of its students.

Bryn Mawr, starting this year and continuing over a five-year period, is enrolling five groups of 10 students from underrepresented groups who are interested in math and science.

Called STEM Posse Scholars for the Posse Foundation, which fosters such small supportive groups, the program is designed to increase participation and persistence. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Also beginning fall 2014, Bryn Mawr itself will pay for an effort to increase community college transfers from under-represented populations. The effort's start-up period was paid for with foundation money.

Cheyney University pledged to extend its learning communities to the whole campus, which will involve professional development of faculty and staff, and develop a way to evaluate the success of the learning communities.

Franklin & Marshall College promised to increase its financial aid budget by 10 percent in 2014-15 and to seek donations to keep it at that level.

Franklin & Marshall, which has two Posse groups enrolled, also said it will commit to STEM Posses for at least the next five years.

The University of Pennsylvania plans to do more outreach this year so that more students know about the university's "all-grant, no-loan financial aid program," which meets 100 percent of demonstrated need.

Wilkes University this spring will have its first Founder's Gala to raise money for needy, first-generation students.

Montgomery County Community College plans to combine academic advising with technological tools so that students don't fall through the cracks; provide financial, civic and digital literacy programs to students; and expand a mentoring program for minority students.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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