Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Test-Prep Program That’s Helping Low-Income Students Get to College

November 29, 2016
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The Test-Prep Program That’s Helping Low-Income Students Get to College
A student and his CollegeSpring mentor at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City. Courtesy of CollegeSpring
CollegeSpring’s innovative curriculum has helped thousands of disadvantaged kids turn a far-fetched fantasy into reality.

It’s one of the most glaring indicators of inequity in the nation’s education system: Students from low-income families tested 166 points below the average on last year’s SAT and 396 points behind than their wealthiest peers. Put another way, the poorest students (whose parents earned less than $20,000) could barely meet the baseline for applying to California State University, Northridge, while most rich kids (whose parents rake in over $200,000) would have the same shot of getting into the higher ranked University of California, Los Angeles.

CollegeSpring, an eight-year-old San Francisco–based nonprofit with offices in L.A. and New York, is trying to upend those inequalities by helping low-income high school students boost their SAT scores, navigate the college admission process and complete four-year degrees. While the organization can’t make up all the differences that exist between the rich and the poor, CollegeSpring’s 80-hour prep program has helped 15,000 high schoolers in California and New York improve their SAT scores by an average of 183 points, effectively erasing the statistical disadvantage usually seen among poorer students.

“The SAT isn’t a test that’s trying to trick or trap you. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate what you know how to do,” says Julie Bachur Gopalan, CollegeSpring’s senior vice president of strategy and impact. “You can put up a number that you can improve pretty quickly over a short period of time. You can’t do that with a GPA by the time you get to junior year.”

Garrett Neiman, CollegeSpring’s co-founder and CEO, agrees. Upping SAT scores, he says, is a “point of leverage in the system” that has been overlooked by other educational nonprofits. Meanwhile, for-profit test-prep companies, like the one Neiman once worked for, have cashed in.

The need for CollegeSpring, which is free for qualified students, became apparent during Neiman’s sophomore year at Stanford (the school accepted him after he nailed a perfect 2400 on his own SAT), when he befriended several classmates on full scholarship. “They all credited some catalyst: a teacher, parent, mentor or a specific college-access program,” he says. “On one hand, it was disheartening. From a meritocratic lens, if they came from an inner-city background, [their acceptance to Stanford] wasn’t possible without that help. But at the same time, it felt like if there were more or better programs, the gap could be closed.”

Neiman decided to quit his lucrative job as an SAT coach. Tutoring had been “a great way to pay for school,” he says, but only a rarified group had the money to sit in on his lessons. In other words, he’d been exacerbating an economic disparity. During a social entrepreneurship course at Stanford, Neiman and his co-founder, Jessica Perez, crafted a new test-prep curriculum. After three pilot programs that summer, CollegeSpring emerged.

Recognizing that the simple tricks taught by for-profit SAT companies (like knowing how many choices to eliminate before randomly guessing) wouldn’t sufficiently boost scores to erase the gap, Neiman devised a curriculum that would help students sharpen the academic skills they already possess: High school juniors and seniors would take 40 hours of SAT prep, tailored to the needs of those with low-income backgrounds; follow that up with four full-length practice tests; and then receive another 20 hours of instruction about the college application and financial aid processes.

“We meet our students wherever they are when they enter the program, which is often at a lower baseline score, with a lot less knowledge of the test and the way it’s scored and not much information about the college application process in general,” says Bachur Gopalan. “That means that our curriculum itself has a lot of scaffolding; it doesn’t assume they know certain concepts. What we do is remediation, then apply the core academic concepts in an SAT setting.”

Unlike Kaplan and other for-profit tutors, CollegeSpring’s curriculum is taught by classroom teachers. That personnel choice is important because students need a foundation of trust before they dive into the forbidding world of college admissions, says Bachur Gopalan, a former high school teacher. “They don’t want to learn from people who make them feel they are not smart,” she says. “They don’t want to feel like charity cases.”

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Besides arming teachers with the curricular resources to coach low-income students, the nonprofit employs top undergraduates from area colleges to reinforce the teacher’s lessons in a small-group setting. In what’s known as “near-peer mentoring,” these students, who’ve successfully enrolled in college, instill confidence in the younger students who are just embarking on their post–high school journey.

That’s exactly how it went for Karimah Omer, a Yemeni immigrant who came to the US in 2000 to live with 17 relatives in a one-bedroom apartment in East Oakland. “Coming from a family of nine siblings, it was hard to think about my parents being able to afford college,” says Omer, who thought, if anything, her parents could save up for her younger sister’s education. But her CollegeSpring mentor, a junior enrolled at UC Berkeley, entranced Omer with her description of the university as another world unto itself — a message that resonated because the mentor was from Oakland too. “We’re so underestimated. We’re expected to get local restaurant jobs and live off that. The whole group was happy we had someone from our city, doing really great things, who went to Cal. She showed us what it means to be a leader for the community.”

With CollegeSpring’s help, Omer devoted her energies to improving her SAT score in the hopes a school would notice her determination. She watched the tallies on her practice test rise, “little by little,” until her final score on the real exam rose 325 points. With that score, Omer matriculated to Mills College, an all-female liberal arts school in Oakland. She’s now a sophomore with an eye toward earning a master’s to work with autistic children. She’s also paying it forward, having become a CollegeSpring mentor herself.

Since 2008, about half of CollegeSpring’s students have gone on to four-year colleges, which generally have higher graduation rates than community colleges. (Nationally, 52 percent of low-income students who finish high school enroll in either community college or four-year programs.) About 80 percent of those alumni, Neiman adds, are on track to finish their degree. With each additional correct answer on the SAT, thousands of first-generation college-bound students are springing out of their disadvantaged circumstances.

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