A Push to Diversify Elite Colleges, Backed by Foundations and Techies

Projects to expand college access opportunities for disadvantaged students are nothing new; many funders are backing such programs. Most of these efforts, however, are more concerned with getting young men and women into college than with which college they enter.

These programs may help reduce the college enrollment gap overall, but at the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and others — the gap has stubbornly persisted. Among students from the most elite families, attending an Ivy League or other top college is practically a birthright, and the admission system at these schools is rigged in their favor to a greater extent than many Americans realize, as Daniel Golden documented in his 2007 expose The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. For gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds, however, enrolling at such schools is often little more than a wish.

Well, here's one interesting effort we've been tracking that's trying to change that. 

Several Silicon Valley investors have extended their willingness to take big risks for big returns to the arena of college admissions, pouring money and advice into a nonprofit that helps low-income students get into the nation’s most elite colleges. The nonprofit, QuestBridge, began in 2003 as a way to help connect gifted disadvantaged students with elite colleges, such as Harvard and Stanford. These and other top institutions pay QuestBridge a recruiting fee.

Since its 2003 founding, QuestBridge has attracted support from a broad range of funders. Some of the biggest supporters include the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the Heckscher Foundation for Children, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and numerous other individual and institutional donors.

The tech investors in QuestBridge include LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Matt Cohler of Benchmark Capital, investor Timothy Ferriss, and biotech investor Juan Enriquez, who also serves on the QuestBridge board of directors. Hoffman and Ferriss serve on the organization’s advisory board. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the investors hope to build a deeper talent pool of college graduates with STEM skills.

“I am attracted to organizations with potential massive scale, disruptive potential and sustainability,” Hoffman said in explaining his interest. “QuestBridge has all three of these features.”

Hoffman's comments offer insight into the way some Silicon Valley types see social change efforts. Since they've spent their careers looking for business ideas that change how things are done and achieve scale, it's no surprise they seek the same attributes in groups in the social sector. As well, these folks are drawn to difficult problems that haven't yet been solved. And one other point: Many Silicon Valley types see more meritocracy as the key to tapping the full potential of America's human capital — ferreting out the brilliant kids who never get a chance but could make a huge contribution to tech and other industries. 

QuestBridge founders Michael McCullough and his wife, Ana, emphasize identifying gifted, but disadvantaged, students from areas that college admissions officers seldom visit, such as small cities and rural communities. QuestBridge helps place about 2,000 disadvantaged students at more than 30 elite colleges from an applicant pool that tops 10,000 a year.

Research suggests that QuestBridge is onto something with its approach. A 2012 paper by economists Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard found that many low-income students are reluctant to apply to elite schools because they lack encouragement or information about financial aid availability.

“It’s not intuitive to [a disadvantaged] kid that an Ivy League school would give them a quarter-million dollars,” McCullough told the Journal.

About a decade ago, Harvard sought to diversify its student body and give more gifted students from low-income families a chance. If a student could be admitted, Harvard would pick up the tab. Princeton began a similar program in 1998, and since then, other Ivies have followed suit. These efforts have increased enrollment by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but students from such backgrounds still comprise less than 20 percent of the enrollment, based on the number of students receiving Pell Grants.

College readiness is about much more than having good grades, high admissions test scores, and a ton of extracurricular activities. It also is about knowing how to access higher education and successfully navigate the process, including applying for admission and financial aid. Researchers call this "college knowledge." Low-income students, even those with high grades and scores, are often at a disadvantage in this area. The most elite students are disproportionately represented in the halls of the nation’s most elite colleges. Groups such as QuestBridge and the funders behind them can do a lot to close that gap.