On College Success: Four questions with Jim McCorkell, College Possible

College Possible makes college admission and success possible for low-income students through an intensive curriculum of coaching and support. Students served by the program are four times more likely to earn a degree than their low-income peers, and a culture of innovation and rigorous evaluation demonstrates that the College Possible model is making an impact for tens of thousands of students across the country.

But the scale of the challenge is daunting. There are 2.4 million low-income students enrolled in college today – and only one in five will reach graduation within six years.  We are supporting College Possible’s new partnership strategy called Catalyze, which seeks to embed the organization’s tried-and-true model of near-peer coaching and a research-based curriculum on college campuses nationwide, broadening the reach of this proven approach.

We recently spoke with Jim McCorkell, CEO of College Possible, about the organization’s mission to close the gap between potential and opportunity for low-income students, and the role of near-peer coaching in helping them reach college graduation. Check out our conversation below and don’t miss the full “On College Success” blog series here.

What drives your passion for education?

Education, and specifically higher education, is a very personal topic for me. I grew up in a low-income family, as the youngest of five children. My parents only finished high school, but they impressed upon us the importance of higher education. Very simply, they wanted an easier life for us than they had, and they knew that a college education would open countless opportunities for us.

Each of their kids ultimately earned a college degree, but I recognize our story is much more the exception than the rule. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in this country, and upper income students are six times more likely to earn a college degree by age 24 than their low-income counterparts. All the while, research continues to show that the best way to break the cycle of poverty is to get a college education, which unlocks tremendous earning potential throughout a lifetime. It is unconscionable to me that the gap continues to widen, so I have dedicated my life’s work to close that divide.

Tell us about the College Possible approach. How did you get started?

College Possible started as an idea on napkin, and in the year 2000 with a very small group of employees, a few AmeriCorps members and some early funding, we set out to serve 35 students in Minneapolis/St. Paul. A little less than a decade (and some great outcomes) later, we began exploring the idea of expansion. We now reach nearly 25,000 nationwide, supporting students from their junior year of high school until they earn their college degree.

What is the role of near-peer coaching and your peer support network?

Near-peer coaching is truly the lifeblood of College Possible. We connect low-income students in the “academic middle” (typically a 2.0-3.0 GPA) to a near-peer coach – an idealistic, motivated recent college graduate who dedicates a year or more of service to College Possible through AmeriCorps. The coach acts as a mentor, advocate and guide while helping the student understand the confusing path to college admission and persistence and breaking down the higher education system into manageable and understandable pieces. Because of the close proximity in age, the coach brings useful perspectives and experiences similar to the students they support.

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

Ultimately, my vision is to see low-income students graduate from college at a rate that is equal to that of their upper-income peers. If we, as a nation, were able to accomplish that, we would have 24,000 more college graduates each year to fill our country’s workforce needs and support a competitive economy.

Change only occurs when you actively work to make it happen. Achieving that change and ensuring every student has the opportunity to receive a college education is up to us based on what we believe, what we do, and what we fight for.