Gateways to the Elite: A Funder's Boost for Disadvantaged Students at Top Schools

Yale University students

Yale University students

Many funders want to ensure college access for disadvantaged and first-generation college students, but fewer focus on ensuring such access to the nation’s top institutions of higher education.

Of course,  there's been lots of talk about exactly this challenge: How to open up the doors to elite schools that, by some measures, have done a terrible job of ensuring they are ladders of upward mobility—especially for an economically diverse student body. Why does this matter? Because name-brand colleges and universities are still enormously prestigious and operate as key feeders to other elite institutions. Many see opening up these gateways to opportunity and privilege as enormously important. 

So we were interested to learn of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ support for the American Talent Initiative (ATI), which announced this month a venture to expand the number of high-achieving low- and moderate-income students in the nation’s most prestigious public and private colleges by 50,000 by the year 2025. Federal data estimate that about 430,000 high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are enrolled at the 270 colleges and universities with the highest graduation rates in the country. ATI hopes to expand that number to 480,000 by 2025, with a focus on new students enrolled at the top schools. 

Participating institutions in the ATI include top public universities such as the Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California at Berkeley; large private institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities; and small private colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Pomona colleges. A total of 30 top colleges participate in ATI, which hopes to attract other schools to reach its goal of boosting the number of high-achieving, disadvantaged students enrolled in and attending top schools.

If you don't watch Bloomberg Philanthropies very closely, you probably won't think of it as a player in the higher ed space. Instead, issues like public health, climate change and government innovation will come to mind. But this is a big foundation that keeps expanding with an eye on the mammoth $40 billion Bloomberg fortune it will eventually have to dispose of. It's been in the higher ed space for a while, and it's not surprising to see an expansion in this part of its work. 

Bloomberg supports ATI as an outgrowth of its CollegePoint initiative, launched two years ago. CollegePoint uses virtual advising to guide top students from disadvantaged backgrounds toward top institutions of higher education. CollegePoint helps students identify the schools that best fit their interests, apply for admission, and research financial aid options.

Research indicates that when high-achieving students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds attend demanding colleges and universities, they graduate at higher rates, and access to these schools enhances their career opportunities for the rest of their lives.

Through ATI, the schools will share institutional data and lessons learned about successful strategies in recruiting and retaining target students. The Aspen Institute and Ithaka S+R will coordinate the initiative, study the practices shared by the schools, and publish regular progress reports.

A strong correlation between education and income supports many Americans’ view that education is the best path to social mobility and getting ahead. Legislation since the mid-20th century, such as the G.I. Bill and the Higher Education Act, are consistent with this belief. For many students from disadvantaged backgrounds—even those with tremendous potential—access to the nation’s top colleges and universities can often seem out of reach. Initiatives such as ATI and Bloomberg’s CollegePoint have the potential to help put opportunities in the reach of more students.