Strive for College: Correcting the Inequalities of College Access Nationwide
Interview of Strive's origins and future with Founder Michael J. Carter
August 24, 2011
Recently, I conducted an in-depth interview with Michael J. Carter, Founder, President and CEO of Strive for College, a national non-profit which seeks to correct the inequalities of college access. Strive recruits undergraduate student mentors from local universities to guide low-income high school students through the process of applying to, enrolling in and paying for four-year colleges and universities. This is his story, and the story of Strive.
Michael graduated cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis in May, 2010. He wrote his senior honors thesis on a history of admissions to elite universities in the US and UK, focusing his research on Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge University. He received a full-tuition merit scholarship to attend Washington University in St. Louis as an Annika Rodriguez Scholar, and started the Strive model through his scholarship program his freshman year. He studied at Oxford University under Thatcher adviser Martin Holmes and College Access Officer Helen Etty. He has also studied at Georgetown University.
Rahim Kanani: Describe a little bit about the inspiration and motivation behind the founding of Strive for College.
Michael Carter: My mom grew up in a very working class, Mexican-American family. She was the first in her family to go to college, and her parents (my grandparents, who are my role models and to whom I dedicate my work with Strive) scrapped and saved, working two jobs each, to send her to college. My grandpa always told me I didn’t know how lucky I was and didn’t recognize all the resources I had as a privileged child who grew up attending private schools. And he was right.
The idea for Strive came from my experience transferring from a private to a public school for my junior year of high school. Many of my peers at my public high school were talented and had the grades and test scores to attend four-year universities and colleges, but lacked the guidance or resources to navigate the admissions process. We had only one counselor for about every 800 students, and a lot of her job revolved around scheduling and discipline issues, with little time to help those who needed college guidance.
While it may seem a bit strange, I really enjoyed the college admissions process and ended up helping advise a few friends who were from lower-income families on their options as we went through the process. They ended up receiving great financial aid packages to some great schools and I felt good about what I had done to help them.
I was fortunate to receive a full merit-based scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. As I freshman, I wondered how I could give back for this wonderful gift I had been given and decided to help others, just as I had helped a few of my friends. Who better to do this work, I wondered, that us – college students who had just gone through the process our selves. And so, I created the first model of Strive for College through the Annika Rodriguez Scholarship Program, a service scholarship, in the fall of my freshman year in The pilot program worked with Eskridge High School in Wellston, Missouri, which had a high percentage of low-income students. The district had recently been taken over by the state, students and teachers had fled the district and the guidance counselor also served as the Principal and Athletic Director. In 2007, just 1 of the 30 graduating seniors at Eskridge enrolled in a four-year college. Two years later, Strive for College’s model helped 24 of the 27 graduating seniors enroll in four-year colleges and universities.
At first, I was elated with the results and I think a great many of us who had mentored felt like we had worked a miracle of sorts.
However, I quickly became concerned thinking about how many students in previous years had not enrolled in four-year universities despite being eligible and prepared. After all, we were just helping these students fill out forms and navigate a cumbersome process – they had earned the academic credentials and test scores to be eligible for college. After researching the issue further, I discovered that Congress’ Committee on Higher Education had found that every year, over 400,000 low-income high school seniors graduate qualified to go to four-year college, but don’t enroll. Another couple hundred thousand “undermatch,” meaning they go to four-year universities with lower graduation rates or that offer less financial aid than schools they could be attending , and therefore drop out at higher rates. The more I researched the more distressing the situation became; for example, I found that low-income high school students who received A’s on achievement tests enroll in college at the same rate as high-income students who receive D’s. And over the course of a 40-year career, a college graduate stands to make nearly $1 million more than someone with only a high school degree – an income gap that has tripled since 1980. There was clearly an educational access gap here that was limiting the opportunities, both economic and social, for those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
I became more and more obsessed with this issue, and became a fervent believer of the fact that building a movement of college students starting Strive Chapters on college campuses across the country could solve this problem—after all, I’d just had the wonderful experience of guiding my mentee through the application and helping change her life forever by helping her reach higher education and achieve her dreams. I think my life changed forever when the first student I helped guide through the process called me crying, letting me know she had been accepted to her first college, and she couldn’t thank me enough for helping change her life. I started to cry and thought, “I think I really did help change her life.” This was my Strive moment, the moment where I was realized this type of impactful and transformative service experience could be shared by college students all over the country. By my sophomore year, I had committed to myself to work full-time during and after college to build this movement so that we can solve this very measurable injustice and make sure students who deserve to go to college have the opportunity to do so. It has been my life’s passion ever since.
Rahim Kanani: Fast-forwarding to the present day, how has Strive for College evolved since its’ founding in terms of resources, reach, and results?
Michael Carter: Strive has seen a tremendous growth trajectory from its humble beginnings as a small grassroots community service effort through my Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. This fall, we will have Strive Chapters at 17 universities across the country, with close to 400 college student Strive mentors serving over 400 low-income high school students through the college application, financial aid, and scholarship process.
I was very fortunate, while in college building Strive, to be able to connect with a wide range of influential people and convince them to support Strive. Today, some of our board members include Tom Vander Ark, former executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Philanthropist Connie Lurie (her and her husband Bob are former owners of the San Francisco Giants) and Don Kassing, President Emeritus of San Jose State University. At the height of the recession in 2009, I managed to raise $200,000 in seed funding while still a junior in college and hired my first full-time employee. Today we are embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to scale our efforts across the country and build a sustainable movement.
As our program has grown, so has our impact. At Del Mar High School, which works with our San Jose State University Chapter, our students are enrolling in 4-year colleges at a rate more than 66 percent greater than their peers. Nationwide, 96 percent of our high school students report receiving useful information from their mentors and nearly 90 percent say they feel more comfortable and confident about choosing the right college after going through Strive. As a result, the demand from high school leaders wanting Strive in their schools has increased as well. Rhonda Farber, the Superintendent of Campbell Union High School District (of which Del Mar is a part) has many other schools in her district asking her how they can partner with us. We have received inquiries from schools in states as disparate as New York, Tennessee and Texas, and have been approached by charter school networks, school turnaround organizations, and networks of schools about creating partnerships to help their students reach college and achieve their dreams.
Slowly, Strive is starting to build college going cultures in low-income high schools across the country. In California, there is on average one counselor per one thousand students. The Claremont Colleges, one of our newer chapters, is a stunning example of this. Due to low funding, a high school in Pomona had cut all counselors for its students. The Pomona chapter came into existence because the high school students went to their principal demanding it. They wanted Strive mentors to help them achieve their goals and realize their potential that, due to lack of funds, the school wasn’t providing. Stories like this give me hope that even after only a few short years, we are starting to change the cultures at these schools and empower these young people to go to the colleges they have earned the right to attend. And word is spreading that Strive can help them get there.
What began as a small service project on my college campus has grown into a true national movement because of the commitment and energy of college students across this country, passion that is impossible to quantify in a business plan, annual report, or interview. Every week more college students are contacting us wanting to start Strive chapters at their universities. Many of our chapters have started via referrals from current Strive chapter leaders. For example, our New York University chapter began because of mentors from our UNC Chapel Hill chapter telling NYU students how much they enjoyed being in Strive.
Our first annual national conference, held this past month at San Jose State University, perfectly illustrates what Strive has become. Forty undergraduate Strive leaders from 13 universities across the country spent three days together, sharing best practices, ideas and stories. Everyone, students and staff alike, left inspired, knowing that they are part of something much larger than themselves.
The most poignant moment of the conference came when one of the mentors stood up to share her story and explain why she is part of Strive. A former foster youth and the first in her family to go to college, she was herself a Strive mentee while in high school. She explained that Strive gave her the confidence and courage she needed to achieve her college dreams and that she has now committed to do the same for others as a Strive mentor. Her story reminded me that Strive is, at its core, about people helping people, and our movement is built upon the commitment of people like her.
Rahim Kanani: From a leadership perspective, what have been some of the critical challenges you have overcome or key opportunities you have seized, which significantly contributed to the success thus far of Strive for College?
Michael Carter: One of the biggest challenges in building this movement was that I began while still in college. I got thousands of rejections, with doors shut constantly. The economy was so bad in 2009 that my own family suggested it might be better to go into the for-profit high tech or venture capital sector (I was interning at Google at the time). Part of why I think Strive happened was my persistent confidence in what Strive could be and my faith in what college students were capable of. I persisted, found a group of generous people who were visionary funders and invaluable mentors, and scaled this to a few chapters throughout the country. One of the objections initially raised to me by many folks was that college students are flaky and that they can’t be relied upon to follow through. A college student myself, I rejected this claim, and so we rigorously measured our attendance rates for all our Strive mentors across all our chapters. I’m proud to report our average attendance rate for all chapters this past school year was 96 percent. This only proves what I already believed, that our generation is committed to educational equity and bridging the achievement and access gap, and that we will solve this problem with the passion, energy, and commitment of today’s college students at the helm of the Strive movement.
Rahim Kanani: Separate from more capital and manpower, or other tangible assets, what are some intangible assets you need in order to be successful?
Michael Carter: We need great college student leaders and we need to work hard to define what being a great Strive Chapter leader entails.
Even after four years of doing this work, I am struck by the diversity of leadership present in Strive and want to maintain it. Every morning, when I wake up, I’ll go to our website and read the bios of our chapter leaders. I know them by heart at this point, but I still read them because they inspire me. Their hopes and dreams are shared by millions of their peers across the country. One of our college students wants to be an oil and gas CEO, and another wants to be a college counselor (the latter is probably less surprising). We have affluent students who mentor because they realize how lucky they have been and low-income students who do it because they want students like them to realize that college is possible. Strive draws a diverse group of students (socioeconomically, ethnically, and in regards to career plans) together, all working to solve this education gap. They help Strive realize an integral part of our mission: to create a movement of college students from all backgrounds who are committed to lifelong educational equity for all and to social entrepreneurship. Our student mentors are our greatest asset and are tomorrow’s leaders in the fight for educational equity.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, as Strive for College continues to expand, paint for a moment a portrait of the organization’s position–-as you wish it would be–-five years down the road?
Michael Carter: My goal for Strive in 5 years is simple in theory but sweeping in scope. This movement can be transformative for our society, both economically and socially. I want Strive to solve the problem of the 400,000 low-income high school seniors who, every year, are qualified to attend college and don’t go, and also help the few hundred thousand “undermatched” students who attend colleges where they are less likely to graduate or get less financial aid than they could. As our mission states, I want every student across the country, regardless of economic status or zip code, to have the information and guidance necessary to enroll in their best-fit four-year college. Like the foster youth turned mentor I mentioned earlier, we aim to have all our Strive students become Strive mentors, fueling Strive and creating a true national movement and network of support and advocacy across the country. In 5 years, we aim to have a Strive chapter at almost every university across this country. My goal is to create a diverse team of stakeholders – corporations, foundations, individuals, universities and high schools – working together and bringing resources to bear in order to solve this issue and support our students. Strive is the spark I hope will ignite a much larger fire, one that brings people across the country together in order to create widespread and transformative change.