About College Possible
College Possible was founded in 2000 with the belief that education provides the best path out of poverty. With a goal or making college a reality for the 200,000 at-risk kids who graduate each year prepared for college but who, thanks to cultural and functional barriers, are not able to get there, College Possible delivers personalized support to tens of thousands of low-income students in six American cities. College Possible was the first to leverage the AmeriCorps service infrastructure for college access, and it is essential to the model’s success. collegepossible.org

About Jim McCorkell
Jim McCorkell launched his first enterprise at age ten, setting up a lawn-mowing business in his small town in Minnesota. Business took off and he promptly sub-contracted out much of the manual labor. McCorkell has applied that same entrepreneurial spirit to a remarkable nonprofit venture called College Possible. More than a decade ago McCorkell established the program to help low-income students get to and through college and was the first in the nation to use AmeriCorps members to provide the highly personalized support needed to ensure the students’ success. The results are dramatic; ninety-eight percent of College Possible students earn admission to college and overall they’re 10 times more likely to graduate than their low-income peers

McCorkell’s abiding vision is to make a post-secondary education a reality for the 200,000 low-income kids who graduate from high school each year prepared for college but who, thanks to cultural and functional barriers aren’t able to get there. The need is real: college participation rates in low-income families are 32% lower than those among wealthy families. That gap remains virtually unchanged since 1970, not long after President Johnson announced the war on poverty—and is symptomatic of our country’s persistent and growing inequality.

McCorkell has faced those barriers himself. Neither of McCorkell’s parents finished high school, though they did later earn their GEDs. But he was lucky. His family was stable and his parents supported and encouraged each of their children to pursue higher education. A few teachers and family friends recognized his enormous potential and gave him the support he needed to achieve his goal of going to college. McCorkell earned a scholarship to attend Carleton College before going on to get two master’s degrees, first in political science at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He earned extra money during those years of study by working as a tutor for the test prep company Kaplan, giving him experience that would prove valuable when he launched College Possible.

McCorkell entered Harvard intent on studying the interplay of poverty, race, and gender, specifically as it related to housing, with the goal of starting a nonprofit after getting his degree. As he dug deeper and deeper, he became convinced that changing education access was the best way to end the cycle of poverty. With education come economic security, better health, and more stable housing. He started to wonder if the kind of fee-based test preparation Kaplan students received could be geared towards low-income students. The seed was planted and it began to germinate during his two-year stint with the national service organization City Year.

In 2000 McCorkell returned to Minnesota and filed for 501(c) 3 status for the nonprofit he always knew he’d start. In this new organization, he married his enterprising spirit with his call to serve and set about realizing his mission to make a college education a reality for low-income students like it had been for him. The organization, called College Possible, uses AmeriCorps members to provide intensive intervention and a strong mentor relationship for students in the program while remaining cost-effective. It costs only $3,000 for a student’s two years in the high school program, one-seventh the cost of similar federally funded programs. An independent social return on investment study conducted in 2005 estimates that College Possible offers a 333% return on investment to society through higher contributions to the tax base and a reduction in rates of incarceration and utilization of social services.

Everybody wins. Through College Possible, low-income students are given the support and tools they need to effectively compete for admission to colleges and universities. The universities also benefit: College Possible connects them with a pool of college-capable students that are typically the hardest to identify and recruit, creating more racially and socioeconomically diverse student populations. In an increasingly competitive global economy, we face a projected shortage of 300,000 workers with postsecondary education in the United States through 2018. Finally, through its relationship with AmeriCorps, the program cultivates hundreds of passionate, committed young change-makers who will take the skills developed through their service and apply them throughout their careers. “I couldn’t have imagined a first position to have out of college that could be any better than this. It has blown things wide open in terms of what I can do in the future as I pursue my interest in education,” said D.J. Erickson a Corps member who coached juniors and seniors at St. Louis Park High School in the Twin Cities.

Juniors and seniors who have been admitted into the program meet twice a week for two hours after school with their coach. Each group is comprised of 10-15 kids, who find in each other a shared goal of earning a college degree. Over the two years they work together, deep bonds are forged between the students and their coach. The coaches serve Monday through Thursday at their assigned high school. There, they coach up to 40 students each. On Fridays, the students don’t meet but the coaches do, back at the College Possible office to take part in a weekly assessment and ongoing training.

Coaches use College Possible’s copyrighted curriculum, created to engage the students and guide them through the two-year access program. On average, each student will spend 320 hours in College Possible session. The students and their coaches work first on test preparation to improve student ACT/SAT scores. Most students take part in summer enrichment programs, which their coaches help them find. Next, the coaches introduce the students to college life by taking them to visit a number of nearby campuses. They help their students work on their applications, including all requests for financial aid and scholarships. Finally, College Possible ensures that the transition to college is successful by fully preparing students. Upon completion of the high school program, students join College Possible’s college program where they continue to be supported by a college coach with a technology-based toolkit that bridges the distance.

A culture of positive idealism infuses everything at College Possible is. In fact, this is so important to the organization that its central tenets are spelled out on their website (among them: strive to be delightful, challenge cynicism, be grateful, have fun…). It works: the Princeton Review named College Possible among those offering the best entry-level jobs in the country. The staff culture makes its way through the coaches to the students, who, energized and surrounded by other college-bound students and strong adult mentors for perhaps the first time in their lives, are eager to spread the program’s gospel. They happily do community service and practice tests on weekends and they share their enthusiasm with freshmen and sophomores through formal college planning workshops at their schools.

Always striving for perfection, McCorkell has inculcated a results-focused agenda at College Possible: he uses data and feedback to review every aspect of his program, tweaking a little here, a little there. Real-time intervention is possible thanks to a web-based tracking system that monitors student outcomes. That data is analyzed every Friday by the staff to make sure everyone and everything is on track. Larger studies of the overall effectiveness of the program have also been conducted by outside groups. A 2011 Harvard historical analysis demonstrated College Possible students were 140% more likely to attend a four-year college and 75% more likely to attend any form of post-secondary schooling than their similar peers. In 2013 ICF International found that College Possible students enroll in college at rates 30 percent higher than their low-income peers and at rates slightly higher than their middle and upper- income peers.

A 2013 randomized controlled trial conducted by Harvard University researcher Dr. Chris Avery demonstrates a significant jump in four-year college enrollment for students served by College Possible and a significant increase in college applications submitted by students served by College Possible.

Nearly 15 years after the first group of 35 students, College Possible helped 15,000 low-income students last year. In 2013-14, 2,837 students participated in the high school program; 4,837college students received support and 7,482 high school freshmen and sophomores participated in college information seminars. More than 600 recent college graduates applied for the 200-plus AmeriCorps and VISTA spots that College Possible needs to fill next year.

The College Possible model undeniably works—better than any other college readiness program—and it is replicable and scalable. Additionally, McCorkell has molded an efficient, effective model that works equally well in his absence. For these reasons, the College Possible board voted to start a careful national expansion, first with an expansion pilot launch to Milwaukee in 2008; then with an aggressive national expansion plan launched in 2010 to reach 50,000 low-income students annually by 2021. College Possible now has sites in the Twin Cities, Omaha, Milwaukee, Portland, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Jim McCorkell may have had the business sense to innovate a model that can do without him but there’s little question that he can’t do without it—this is his life’s work. Every step he has taken has deliberately guided him down the path to College Possible. Natalie Rule Burns, who worked with College Possible, calls him “impressive and inspiring” but also entirely earnest and up-front: “You’ll never get spun by Jim. He’s doing this work with a vision that the future of America’s children should be determined solely by their talent, motivation, and effort, not their parents’ socioeconomic status.” It’s just that simple.

[August 2015]

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