LOS ANGELES – If you go by the odds, Sierra Williams shouldn’t be in college, let alone at a highly selective school like USC.
Many kids in her low-income neighborhood here don’t get to or through the 12th grade. Her single mother isn’t college-educated. Neither are Sierra’s two brothers, one of whom is in prison. Her sister has only a two-year associate degree.
But when Sierra was in the sixth grade, teachers spotted her potential and enrolled her in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, or NAI, a program through which USC prepares underprivileged kids who live relatively near its South Los Angeles campus for higher education. She repeatedly visited USC, so she could envision herself in such an environment and reach for it. She took advanced classes. Her mother, like parents or guardians of all students in the NAI, got counseling on turning college into a reality for her child.
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Sierra, 20, just finished her junior year at USC. An engineering major, she’s already enrolled in a master’s program. “My end goal is to get my Ph.D,” she told me when I met her recently.
It’s now some two decades since the first class of seniors in the NAI graduated from high school and went on to college. More than 900 kids have used the NAI as an on ramp to higher education – more than a third of them ended up at USC – and that number is growing quickly as the NAI expands.
The public school that many NAI enrollees attend, the Foshay Learning Center, was responsible for more new arrivals on the USC campus last fall than any other public or private high school in America. Nineteen NAI alumni started as freshmen; 11 more transferred from other colleges.
And NAI doesn’t even represent the whole of USC’s efforts to address inadequate socioeconomic diversity at the country’s most celebrated colleges. Although USC has often been caricatured as a rich kids’ playground – its nickname in some quarters is the University of Spoiled Children – it outpaces most of its peers in trying to lift disadvantaged kids to better lives. Those peers should learn from its example.
According to a recently published study whose data was just a few years old, 38 of America’s top colleges had more students from families in the top 1 percent of income earners than from those in the bottom 60 percent. There are many reasons, principally a failure to identify and recruit disadvantaged kids whose abilities and accomplishments make them perfectly eligible for elite colleges with low acceptance rates. (USC’s is now about 16.5 percent.)
But we also don’t make enough disadvantaged kids eligible in the first place. We don’t guide them through elementary, middle and high school so that they have the necessary grades, scores, skills and mindsets. Administrators at USC figure that they can’t just wait for public education to improve and should use some of their considerable resources to chip in themselves somehow.
At an event in Washington on Wednesday, C.L. Max Nikias, the president of USC, plans to urge more colleges to do that as well. “I don’t know what is holding them back,” he told me.
Many are already doing some work along those lines, but USC stands out. In addition to the NAI, it has been involved in the establishment of three charter high schools serving low-income neighborhoods in its general geographic area. At the first of these, USC Hybrid High, all of the 84 seniors who graduated last year were accepted into four-year colleges.
Separately, there are hundreds of kids from the sixth through 12th grades in the NAI. During high school, their first class every day is taught in a room on USC’s campus. They head back to campus on Saturdays for enrichment activities.
One recent weekday morning I sat in on an AP English class with 31 students in the NAI. All were minorities. I asked how many had a parent who had graduated from college. Only four hands went up. I asked how many would be the first in their families, including siblings, to enroll in college. Eighteen of the kids raised their hands.
One was Sergio Lopez, 17. His dad, a mechanic, immigrated from Guatemala and his mom, a homemaker, from Honduras.
Sergio was just accepted into USC and will head there next fall, joining a student body that isn’t as lopsided with the 1 percent as those at many other elite colleges are. According to that study, 13.9 percent of USC’s students are in that bracket while 21.9 percent are from the bottom 60 percent of family incomes.
He told me that any nerves he might have felt about college, especially as a first-generation college student, are allayed by how familiar USC’s environs have become.
“It got comfortable,” he said, adding that an NAI-assigned mentor at USC has given him tips on how best to study: Ditch the dorm for the library, which has fewer distractions. That may be a no-brainer for some kids. For others, nothing about college is obvious – or inevitable.