Crimson Academy nets promising results

Kenneth J. Cooper | 11/1/2011, 7:53 p.m.

Harvard University and other elite colleges have encountered criticism because students from upscale families have come to dominate the schools’ black enrollments. African American alumni of an earlier generation and other critics want more low-income students admitted.

National studies, though, show that only a small percentage of high school seniors from poor African American or Hispanic families even apply to the country’s best colleges. Most of these students incorrectly assume they would never get into top schools or could not possibly afford to attend them.

For most of the past decade, seven college-prep programs — most housed at Harvard and other prestigious private universities — have made some headway in reversing this trend and misconception.

 “It’s important because they don’t have the financial support that is required to prepare for higher education, in many cases, and readiness and preparation for college,” says Michael T. Nettles, senior vice president of evaluation and research at the Educational Testing Service. “It’s also important for the diversification of colleges and universities.”

The Crimson Summer Academy, based at Harvard since 2004, has regularly interviewed and surveyed its students to track attitudes and aspirations.

 “They feel it has empowered them to dream higher than they might have,” says Maxine Rodburg, the academy’s director.

Average family income for students who have participated in the Crimson Summer Academy has been $29,000, Rodburg says, even lower than the median for all seven programs. She says, “Crimson Scholars” have included students who were on welfare, homeless or in foster care.

Participants come from 35 public schools in Boston or Cambridge, and are required to have recommendations from their respective schools. About 130 students are nominated for 30 slots. The only test-based requirement for admission, Rodburg says, is that nominees must have passed MCAS.

The Educational Testing Service says 99 percent of graduates from the Harvard program have applied to a selective college, 90 percent have been accepted and 75 percent have enrolled in one — higher rates than the overall average for the seven programs. Most of the Harvard students are African American or Hispanic.

Rodburg says of the first class of 30 students, who entered the academy in 2004, about 25 graduated from college in four years. Another two are on track to finish in December, two more in a year or so.  Graduation, however, is not in sight at the moment for one.

None of the host colleges guarantees admission upon completion of the college prep programs. Through the years, eight academy participants have enrolled at Harvard.

Nationally, the year-round programs built around intensive academic preparation during summers have altogether served 2,000 high school students from underrepresented groups since 2000. About three-quarters are African American or Hispanic. The median annual income of all students’ families was $35,000 and nearly a quarter were living below the federal poverty line.

Except for Catholic school students in New York City, most students attended public schools. Almost 60 percent had no one in their families who had completed college.

The goals of the programs are to lift the students’ aspirations so they aim to attend one of 185 selective colleges, prepare them academically to win admission and then guide them through the application and financial aid process.