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Making a Difference
"College Match" helps low-income students to compete on an equal footing

By Anne C. Roark
Los Angeles

Like most ambitious parents, Harley Frankel is determined to give his kids every advantage when they apply to college. Test-prep classes, writing tutors, campus tours, favors from influential friends-whatever might make a difference, he'll do his best to provide.

They are the best; they have a right to expect the best. That's what he tells them-and he means it.

The beneficiaries of this seemingly boundless devotion and determination are not Frankel's own children, who are already in college, but 41-soon to be 100-inner-city Los Angeles high school students who are participating in College Match, a program designed to get more low-income students into top colleges around the country.

Based on a simple formula-do for the poor what the rich do for their children-the fledgling program is focused on one of higher education's oldest and most intractable problems: income inequities on campus.

Except for stints in some top management posts in professional sports, Frankel has spent most of his professional life overseeing government programs to help economically disadvantaged students. In the early 1970s he was one of the original architects of the federal student financial aid policy that gave priority to low-income students and was a forerunner to Pell Grants, the nation's largest need-based grant program. He went on to be the Director of Head Start, and a senior executive for the Children's Defense Fund.

Wellesley College was one of the stops in a tour of prestigious New England colleges a group of inner-city high school students took last winter.
(Photo by Harley Frankel)

It wasn't until his own children began looking at college that he realized what was keeping economically disadvantaged students from getting into the country's top schools. Even when guaranteed financial aid, low-income students rarely compete on an equal footing simply because affluence itself plays a major role in the outcome of college applications.

College-educated parents have been breeding college-bound children for generations. But, as Frankel discovered, affluent parents are now treating their offspring like spirited racehorses or show dogs who need to be trained and groomed to compete for top prizes in high-stakes competitions.

In contrast, low-income students go it alone, if they go at all. Their parents may be encouraging-or they may not-but parents who have not been to college themselves aren't likely to have many insider's tips. Public school counselors may have all the knowledge in the world, but with responsibility for upwards of 500 students each, they don't have time to share much of that knowledge. Little wonder then why so few poor students have aspirations beyond the parking lot of the nearest community college.

In fact, while racial inequality has been an issue widely discussed for decades on American college campuses, economic inequity has not. It is "higher education's dirty little secret," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of "America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education."

Economically disadvantaged students are the largest underrepresented group on campus today, according to the Educational Testing Service. The better the college academically, the greater the imbalance economically. Only three percent of students in the nation's 146 most competitive colleges are from families in the lowest economic quartile, whereas 75 percent are from the upper quartile, according to a study by Anthony P. Carnevale, former ETS vice president for research.

As recently as six years ago, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton, strong supporters of racial equality, said it was unrealistic to expect elite colleges to admit more low-income students. "The problem is not that poor but qualified candidates go undiscovered, but that there are simply too few of these candidates in the first place," wrote Derek Bok and William Bowen in "The Shape of the River," a book on race they co-authored in 1998.

Harley Frankel has organized a program to help able, but low-income, Los Angeles high school graduates compete with their wealthier peers for places in elite colleges.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
This year, their successors took something of an about face. Calling the gap in opportunities for students from different economic backgrounds the "most severe domestic problem in the United States," Harvard President Lawrence Summers said it was "morally incumbent" on universities to take action. Harvard's first step has been to revamp its student-aid program so that parents who earn less than $40,000 will no longer have to pay any college costs. Earlier, Princeton became the first university in the country to get rid of student loans by providing need-based grants large enough to cover all education costs.

Colleges and universities with smaller endowments can't be as generous, although, according to a 2003 College Board study, one reason college tuition has been rising so dramatically-twice as fast as inflation at private colleges and almost six times faster at public institutions-is that colleges are using some extra tuition money they get from affluent students to help more low-income students.

Frankel is concerned about all the low-income students who never make it to the door of a financial-aid office.

"I have a theory I'm trying to prove," Frankel said on his way to David Starr Jordan High School in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood better known for its drugs and drive-by shootings than for its college-prep programs.

"If qualified low-income students are given the same level of encouragement, strategic planning and insiders' knowledge that Westside (affluent and suburban) parents have given their children for generations, I am confident low-income students will get into college and do as well, if not better, than those students who have been preparing themselves for college all of their lives," Frankel said.

Determined to prove his theory, Frankel set up an office in a spare bedroom in his house in Santa Monica, began seeking advice from local public school administrators and introducing himself to college admissions officers around the country. He managed to cobble together a budget to pay for tutors, trips to campuses as far away as Maine, and himself a modest salary so he could work full-time on the project.

Along the way, he got discount prices for test-prep courses from some of the pre-college training companies preferred by affluent families in Los Angeles. He persuaded Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, to donate dozens of copies of his popular 700-page "Fiske Guide to Colleges." He lined up doctors and other professionals from disadvantaged backgrounds to talk about how they overcame economic and social barriers. In the back of his mind, Frankel also began to compile another list of professionals, Baby Boomers like himself who had had successful careers but were beginning to think about doing something else with the next phase of their lives-something meaningful.

Frankel then began looking for academically strong students from overcrowded, under-staffed public high schools in some of LA's toughest neighborhoods. To be admitted, students had to be interviewed and fill out a mini-version of a college application. The requirements are similar to college requirements: a rigorous course load, a ranking in the upper 15 percent of their classes, a potential for reasonably high SAT scores (and a willingness to work for them), a skill in music, athletics, drama, etc. (One criterion spelled out on the College Match application that students are unlikely to see on real college applications is a prohibition against gang affiliation.)

Harley Frankel (far left) accompanies students on a visit to the prestigious California Institute of Technology.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
When he began interviewing students and having them fill out applications, Frankel knew he didn't want underachieving students who would be better served by remedial programs. He also knew he didn't want standout athletes and academic whiz kids: Harvard and Princeton and Stanford would be only too happy to take care of the inner-city superstars.

Instead, Frankel set his sites "just below that level," on the "hundreds, if not thousands, of well-qualified students who get lost in the process. They have good records, have the capability to become outstanding citizens, but are not recruited by the top colleges."

What's more, Frankel was certain there were "many excellent small colleges that would love for these students to apply and enroll, but have no way of identifying and connecting with these prospective candidates."

College Match begins by providing low-income high school students with a pre-collegiate version of a reality TV makeover. Then College Match functions a bit like a dating service, but instead of fixing up couples, the aptly named program matches colleges and students.

In a world where programs for the disadvantaged come and go at the speed of cell phone models, College Match has been met with considerable enthusiasm as it nears its third year of operation.

"I've worked with hundreds of programs that try to help disadvantaged students, and they all provide some help, but a couple of things make College Match stand out," said Erbe Mitchell, an admissions officer at Bowdoin College. "Harley has exceptional working knowledge of higher education and student aid. He's not a rookie trying to go out and do social justice in higher education."

Some volunteers from nonprofit organizations who go to inner-city schools to try to help are what Antonio Reveles, director of college counseling at Bell High School, calls "poverty pimps... people who are more interested in using economically disadvantaged students as statistics than in giving them the kind of help they really need."

One of the keys to the success of College Match, Reveles and Mitchell agree, is Frankel's determination to send students only to colleges where he has personal relationships.

"Harley doesn't send students to institutions; he sends them to people," Mitchell said. "Say one of his students comes here and it turns out she's under a lot of stress because she's struggling to send $30 or $40 home every week to help her family. Harley wants to be able to get on the phone and call me or someone else he knows and trusts and say point blank, 'This kid's in trouble. You've got to get the college to give her some more support.' Having that kind of relationship is the difference between a student making it or not."

Julie Neilson, Jordan High's director of college counseling, is amazed that a man of Frankel's stature would work so closely with students himself.

"Since Jordan sits in the middle of Watts, an area that is and has been plagued with riots, poverty, drugs and gangs, we seldom have an adult who is willing to come directly to our school and work directly with our students and parents," Neilson said in a letter to Frankel. "Organizations that come to work within our school send college students but never do the actual hands-on work themselves. This may appear to be a minor point to some, but to our community it is not....A new attitude is beginning in this neighborhood, and you have had a great part in this."

Stephen Singer, a private school counselor in New York is part of a lineup of leading educators from around the country who are on the board of College Match. "What Harley is doing is much more important than what I'm doing," Singer insists.

Singer is director of college counseling at Horace Mann School, a competitive prep school where students feel their lives are over if they don't get into a name-brand college. "Privileged students in an elite school fight to get into Ivy League schools. My job is to help them with their strategy," he said. "The difference between an Ivy League school and a really good college may or may not be important. But what Harley is doing is important. He's changing people's lives entirely."

Benjamin Sanchez sees himself as one of those people. Riding the bus back from a College Match tour of Occidental College, a well-regarded liberal arts school in Los Angeles, the Bell senior reflected on "where I was headed before I met Mr. Frankel."

Sanchez had been a good student and liked difficult subjects, math and science especially. He was a runner and liked hard races; cross country was his specialty. But "something changed" when he reached high school. He had "seen things"-drugs and gangs-and he had "stopped seeing the point" of school.

Frankel refocused his thinking and got him running again, faster than ever, and in more ways than one. Sanchez realized there was a point to school after all. It would get him into college. And college would get him-well, almost anywhere. Now his grades are strong. His SAT scores are up 150 points. And he's even making suggestions about colleges to approach. "I heard this place in Pasadena-Caltech-was pretty good in science. Do you think we should go there?"

Many College Match students are reticent to talk about their backgrounds, which is ironic since their backgrounds are part of what makes them appealing to colleges. "I'd rather not get into that," one young student replied curtly to a question about what her parents do for a living. Other students whose parents are assembly-line workers and housekeepers adopt euphemisms, saying their parents are in "maintenance" or "health promotion."

On a winter morning during the last school year, Frankel gathered the parents of 24 students who were getting ready to fly to the East Coast for an eight-day college tour. Amazed by how many were going on the trip-he had budgeted for only 15-he thanked the parents for entrusting their children to his care. Because many of the parents don't speak English, his words were translated by a student and a teacher.

He told the parents that their children would fly from Long Beach to Boston where two vans would be waiting to drive them around New England. He acknowledged that most of them probably hadn't heard of the colleges their children would be visiting. Harvard, probably. But Tufts, Trinity, Wheaton, Wesleyan? "Many of these are just below the Ivy League. They're wonderful institutions," he assured them.

It might be cold, he warned. There could even be snow, but under no circumstances were they to go out and buy new clothes. "We'll put on layers; we'll make do."

Reveles, who was one of several counselors accompanying Frankel on the trip, reminded the students to ask questions and take notes. "You are research scientists-anthropologists visiting strange new places, meeting people you've never met before....You will meet people who are expected to go there. You'll see people with their family names on the buildings," he warned.

But they were also to have fun, Frankel insisted.

"This is going to be one of the best trips ever," Frankel said. He mentioned the names of two of LA's most elite prep schools, and added, "This will be better than their trips, and theirs cost $2,000 apiece. You will be going free. We've done it because you're very special young people. You deserve it. You've earned it. You're the best. You deserve the best."

After they returned from the trip, Reveles realized how profoundly the students' lives were changing just by being in the program. "They've seen some of the best educational institutions in the country. And not only have they seen them, they've begun to imagine themselves being in those places. They've begun to believe they belong."

Josefina Bojorquez, a student from Franklin High School, where most of the students are from immigrant families, said she "loved Harvard" but much to her surprise also fell in love with Connecticut College, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke-all women's colleges or former women's colleges she had never heard of. "They talked about women and empowerment. I loved that. I could see myself there."

To thank Frankel for the trip, the students pooled what little money they had and bought a handsome pen. The thank-you notes that accompanied the gift seem to overwhelm Frankel every time he looks at them.

"I'm going to get these preserved permanently," he said, eager to show off the notes at lunch but concerned something might happen to them in the meantime. "Are your hands clean? Are you sure your hands are clean? Check."

"Seeing all these great colleges has motivated me to work even harder," one student wrote. "You have changed my life for the better."

"Dearest Mr. Eversosweet Frankel," another student wrote. "I would like you to know that your [sic] one of the reasons I can't stop thanking God every day."

Frankel has a soft side for students but he is also a tough businessman when trying to sell the program to donors. With an undergraduate degree from Columbia and an MBA from Harvard, he can't help but talk about college in economic terms.

The math is simple. College Match spends about $2,500 per student. Each student who goes to college should receive about $100,000 in financial assistance over four years. A donor who puts in $25,000 will generate $1 million in assistance; a contribution of $50,000 will produce $2 million. That is a 4,000 percent return on investment-"quite a nice number," as Frankel sees it.

For students it's not a bad investment of their time and effort, either, considering that a person with a college degree can expect to earn $1 million more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. And that's not to mention all the indirect benefits: being more mobile; living in better, safer neighborhoods; living longer, healthier lives.

What's more, college does not just improve individual lives; the nation as a whole benefits. The more people who have college degrees, the more tax revenues go up, unemployment rates go down, reliance on public assistance programs diminishes, and participation in civic activities increases.

It may be a good investment for the country, but it certainly has not been a lucrative proposition for Frankel himself. After Head Start and the Children's Defense Fund, but before he created College Match, he was a founding executive of Major League Soccer and an executive vice president for both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Why would someone with so much apparent business acumen willingly take what he says was a 300 percent drop in salary to help a handful of disadvantaged kids? Frankel grew up poor, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, so he identifies with the students he is trying to help.

"He's always been Mr. Macro. He's helped thousands of kids. But they've been faceless," said Frankel's wife Wendy Lazarus, who is co-founder and co-president of a policy and strategy center for children. "Getting to actually sit down with these kids and work with them has been wonderful for him-I've never seen him happier. It's also important for these kids to get to see what a competent, hardworking adult who is focused can accomplish."

Frankel might just work himself back into another macro-management position if College Match proves successful and is expanded into a nationwide program. But there could be pitfalls.

The more successful College Match is, the more it may also become susceptive to attack from an unlikely opponent: supporters of race-based affirmative action. College Match hasn't gotten caught up in the race-income debate yet, for the simple reason that all its students so far are both low-income and members of racial minority groups, but that debate could heat up anytime.

Race and income have always been linked in this country, yet programs that focus on race do not necessarily help low-income populations and vice versa. Bok and Bowen found that in the 28 highly selective colleges they studied, race-based affirmative action did not draw in many low-income students. The vast majority-86 percent-of African American students at elite colleges are from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds.

In simulated comparisons involving the 146 competitive colleges Carnevale studied, minority enrollment would be four percent in a strict merit-based system. It would grow to 12 percent under race-sensitive admissions policies, and drop back to ten percent under income-based policies. While about three percent of students in competitive colleges are in the lowest income quartile, and ten percent are in the lower half of the economic pool, the proportion of low-income students could jump to 38 percent if income were to be taken into consideration the way race has been.

Benjamin Sanchez credits "College Match" for helping him improve his grades, his SAT scores and his outlook on life.
(Photo by Alex Koester for CrossTalk)
Considering the constitutionality of affirmative action, in June 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case involving the University of Michigan that race-conscious policies were still needed to overcome the effects of past discrimination but that such policies cannot be continued indefinitely. If public opinion were to determine admissions policies today, race-based affirmative action would already be on its way out. More than two thirds of Americans polled by Newsweek in 2003 opposed race-based affirmative action while a similarly large portion of the population supported policies that give special consideration to low-income students.

Whatever the outcome of that issue, College Match could also run afoul of another national debate: How much tax money should go to help the poor? Frankel repeatedly tells his students not to worry about financial aid because he is sanguine that he can get his students into good colleges. But the reality is that federal student aid has been falling far short of demand for years. While Frankel may be savvy enough get the support his students need, not all students are so lucky.

And that brings up the most important reason why Frankel's biggest fans are skeptical about the likelihood that College Match can be replicated elsewhere.

"What makes the program work is Harley," Reveles said. Where can you find another Harley-let alone a whole cadre of them?

But Frankel is convinced that there are plenty of aging Baby Boomers all over the country just waiting to get involved. Indeed, he already has three professionals lined up-one is a lawyer, another is a retired Latino public official, and the third is a recently retired head of a successful television production company. Before long, as Lazarus points out, there will be alumni who will want to come back, too.

Benjamin Sanchez has already thought of that. "What I want to do when I grow up is be like Mr. Frankel," he said. "I want to make a difference in the world."

Anne C. Roark, a former higher education reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Harley Frankel can be reached at (310) 395-7110, or by e-mail at, or visit

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National CrossTalk Summer 2004



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