Making college for Minnesotans a mission that's possible

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 5:42 PM

An update on the student named ‘Malik’ and other efforts of Minnesota’s true spirit.

Jim McCorkell’s organization, College Possible, is on the front lines of this fight.

Photo: Bruce Bisping • Star Tribune,

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There are a lot of true Minnesotans out there. That’s my take on a student scholarship story out of Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School this spring.

True Minnesotans, by my lights, are people who believe education made this state prosper and is crucial to keeping it that way. They also believe that education is for everyone — every race, every class, every gender, every age. (Did you know that the University of Minnesota was coed from the start — a rarity among mid-19th-century American ­colleges — at the insistence of regent John S. Pillsbury? But I digress …)

Earlier this year, Eva Lockhart, an English teacher in Henry’s acclaimed International Baccalaureate program, shared with Star Tribune readers her dismay at the skimpy college aid available to a bright but economically disadvantaged student. She shielded his identity by calling him “Malik.”

Readers, bless them, came to the rescue of Malik and similarly situated Henry students. The scholarship committee at Patrick Henry received a stunning $28,000 in donations, which was distributed this spring among 35 college-bound grads in increments of $750 to $5,000.

Lockhart reports that in addition, Malik’s financial aid application to the University of Minnesota got a second look, and more aid was awarded. He’ll be a freshman this fall at the Carlson School of Management. What’s more, she said, one anonymous couple donated two full-ride scholarships to the university, earmarked for students in Malik’s circumstances.

While that display of true Minnesota spirit played out in Minneapolis, it also infected the Legislature. A decadelong squeeze on state higher-ed funding finally eased with a $250 million boost over two years. That’s enough to freeze tuition for two years at public colleges and send more help to low-income students at all colleges, public and private, through the State Grant Program. At private colleges, the State Grant increase will average about $700 per student.

Minnesotans can cheer these developments, right, Jim McCorkell? “It’s all in the right direction,” said the founder and CEO of College Possible. “But the scale isn’t what we need. The scale of the problem we’re facing as a state and a nation is truly enormous.”

McCorkell is a fellow from Northfield — a place awash in devotion to higher education — who started a college admission coaching service for needy high school juniors and seniors in his spare bedroom in 1999 and called it Admission Possible. It became College Possible a few years ago, and last year served 15,000 students in four states.

College Possible is on the front lines of the fight to secure Minnesota’s future prosperity. That’s how dependent Minnesota is on improving the schooling of economically disadvantaged kids, who comprise the fastest-growing segment of the state’s young population. They badly lag their more affluent peers in going to college, McCorkell said.

“Who will earn a four-year college degree by the age of 24? Nationally, kids from the upper-income quartile earn those degrees at a rate of over 80 percent. Kids from the lower-income quartile earn degrees at a rate of about 8 percent.” Minnesota’s college completion numbers are much the same as the national ones, he added.

That’s a cheer-killer. But McCorkell put a hopeful spin on the stats:

“The good news is that there’s lots of opportunity to do better. There are literally thousands of kids who want to go to college in this state, and whom colleges would take, that aren’t going at all. We can change that.”

College Possible is in the business of finding those young people and guiding them not just up to college doors, but through them until they have a degree in hand. It offers the coaching services of recent college graduates, most of them AmeriCorps workers, to aid a bit in academic preparation and a lot in opening young eyes to a larger world.

“Here in St. Paul you can stand on any street corner and throw a baseball, and it would land on a college campus. That’s how many colleges we have. Yet there are a lot of low-income kids in St. Paul who have never been on a college campus. Some don’t know anybody in their community who’s a college graduate. Low-income kids are that isolated,” he said.

College Possible changes that, at a cost of about $1,500 per student per year, paid primarily by private donations. Its effectiveness was documented by a 2011 Harvard Kennedy School analysis that shows it doubles the chances that kids from poor families will enroll in a four-year school. McCorkell says College Possible kids are five times more likely to graduate from college than their similarly situated peers.

The money Star Tribune readers provided for Malik and his classmates at Patrick Henry High, and that the Legislature provided for the State Grant Program and a public college tuition freeze, is necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand, McCorkell says. More personal intervention in young lives are needed.

“We’ve got to make sure that we have an education system, starting with early childhood development, that makes sure all kids understand that college is for them, that colleges actually want them.

“And we need leaders who articulate that. All the wage growth and all the job growth in America is now going to people who have some kind of postsecondary education. We need leaders to point that out. Everybody needs to understand that the future as a state depends on making sure low-income kids get a chance to get an education.”

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