On College Success: Five questions with Keith Frome, PeerForward

This is a blog series focused on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches college success work. You will hear from our partners who work each day to help students improve academically, complete rigorous curricula, and cross financial hurdles.  In this blog post, we share thoughts from Keith Frome, CEO and co-founder of PeerForward, formerly known as College Summit. The organization supports college access and success through positive peer influence motivating students to plan for, apply to, and succeed in higher education. You can read the whole series here.

How did you get involved in education?

I started my career as a pure academic.  I was a philosophy major in college, got a master’s degree in analytic philosophy, and started a PhD in Europe in analytic philosophy.  At one point, I realized I did not feel fulfilled by the prospect of just studying and teaching philosophy for the sake of studying and teaching it.  I explored vehicles that would allow me to pour some of my philosophical training into making lives better and the world a better place. I discovered I could merge my analytic philosophy training with something practical when I took two years off to teach at an innovative school outside of Washington D.C.

Tell us about your organization, PeerForward.

We do a number of things to help students get to college, then stay there. For 24 years, we’ve managed a workshop to help students package their college admissions materials, master the financial aid process, meet with a professional college counselor to develop a college list, and write personal statements. We also dig deeply into students’ lives to identify their motivation and obstacles, then guide them through a deeply emotional, personal development program. There’s an authentic transformation that occurs when students complete the PeerForward workshop. Finally, students work with our coaches to build a community organizing strategy which they implement throughout the year on behalf of the rest of their classmates.

One of my favorite stories from the past year is a young lady from Detroit who went through this process. She and her peers ran a financial aid completion campaign for their school.  It wasn’t going well. Eventually, she learned parents in her community were afraid of sharing any information with the federal government out of fear.   She went door-to-door convincing the parents they could trust the government in this situation. She assured them the financial aid information could not be used against them, but could help fund their kids’ college educations.

The parents didn’t trust the school, didn’t trust the federal government, but they trusted this student. After she helped families complete and submit the required forms, her school’s financial aid application rate increased by approximately 77 percent over the previous year. This student went through her own personal transformation, but she didn’t stop there. She wanted to serve her community.

What drives your passion for education?

I co-founded PeerForward because I never wanted any child to ever have their ambition thwarted, or dreams and aspirations not nurtured or coached. That’s my mission and I’m still very passionate about it. If you inhabit the work of our 17-year-old leaders, you won’t ever forget it and it won’t let you go. They sink their spiritual teeth into you, and you know the kind of change they can make in their communities. They can’t give that up – nor can I.

What’s your vision for education over the next 10 years?

Until the American high school is evaluated for the ultimate success metric of post-secondary enrollment and persistence rates, we’re going to be fighting this battle for a long time. My vision is that the post-secondary enrollment and success rates become the defining metrics for the American high school. In the meantime, we’ll continue to work on grassroots efforts and getting kids to adopt college as their peer group purpose. We’re constantly looking for ways to access youth and identify them as conduits for our mission.

What’s your message to others working in college completion?

Let’s measure college outcomes and report the results back at the community level.  Also, let’s make the implementation outcomes public, too. Let’s make it a salient and ultimate concern for the whole community, not just the educators.  Right now, if you went to a typical high school principal and asked what their college enrollment or college persistence numbers are, they probably won’t know that off the tip of their tongue. Neither will the mayor of the town. And most likely, neither will the superintendent, the parents, and certainly not the students. Let’s make the post-secondary access and success issue top of mind and create a sense of urgency among all stakeholders.