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Change Agent: From Georgetown to Franklin & Marshall to Aspen, How Dan Porterfield Is Leading a Revolution to Get First-Generation Students Through College With a Degree

By Richard Whitmire | June 4, 2019

Dan Porterfield with students at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Franklin & Marshall)

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

The campaign to get more first-generation students accepted into colleges has a storied history. That’s what Pell Grants are about. That’s what the battles over affirmative action college admissions preferences are about. But only in recent years, fueled by discoveries that the degree-earning success rates for those students was shockingly low, has the campaign pivoted toward pushing up the college graduation rates — not just acceptance rates. In this campaign some notable leaders have emerged. The KIPP founders, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, and KIPP CEO Richard Barth stand out for creating a set of practices to ensure that students enroll in colleges where they are likely to succeed and then track them through the process to make sure that happens. The top leaders at Uncommon Schools pioneered ways to reshape the K-12 years to boost the likelihood of college success. Deborah’s Bial’s Posse Foundation, which sends small groups of first-generation students to college together, as a “posse,” was an early innovator, as well as College Track, co-founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, which prepares low-income students for college. Nicole Hurd’s more recent College Advising Corps, which sends college advisers to high schools lacking them, is an important contributor.


 

He is trying to engineer a full-blown revolution around getting first-generation students through college with a degree, a revolution on the cusp of success.


Among traditional school district leaders, Pedro Martinez at San Antonio ISD stands out for ushering in data-based college advising on a large scale. And former Houston superintendent Terry Grier deserves credit for embracing a far-out idea by then–elementary teacher Rick Cruz to develop a network there to greatly boost the odds that bright, low-income students get admitted into top colleges — and win degrees. Several academics play key roles as well, in particular Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, whose work revealed thousands of high-performing, low-income high school students who deserved better shots at top colleges. A handful of philanthropists help fuel this movement. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has long championed this cause, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in recent years has played a top role in underwriting professional college counselors to assist low-income students in finding their way to colleges where they are likely to succeed. In November 2018, Bloomberg announced that he was giving $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, so that low- and moderate-income students could attend without having to take out loans as part of their financial aid package.

As in most movements, several people emerge as the key passionate leaders, individuals blessed with the rare ability to light up the issue with inspiring rhetoric and prose, all placed in historical context, likely to take the movement from helping a few thousand first-generation college-goers to helping tens of thousands. In this movement one of those people is Dan Porterfield, who first caught everyone’s attention on this issue at Georgetown University and then fleshed out a broader vision as president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now, as the new president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, he is trying to engineer a full-blown revolution around getting first-generation students through college with a degree, a revolution on the cusp of success.

Heeding the lessons learned in Baltimore

Understanding why the lanky, soft-spoken Porterfield (who could win an Eric Clapton look-alike contest) has become the most prominent advocate of the college success movement requires some history, starting with his childhood in Baltimore, the son of two teachers who divorced when he was very young. After the divorce, when he was about 8, his mother moved Porterfield and his sister to a row house in a neighborhood that was all working-class white families, with many employed at McCormick Spices or Black & Decker. Porterfield attended nearby Northwood Elementary School. What he noticed quickly was that he was the only child in his neighborhood who went to Northwood, an integrated school that was shifting to mostly African-American students. His white neighbors all went to St. Matthew’s, a nearby Catholic school.

Porterfield didn’t think too much about it. That was just the way it was. But that all changed when he was about 10 and a black family moved into the neighborhood. “I’m pretty sure it was a doctor and his wife and their two little girls. A lot of people tried to intimidate them into leaving, throwing tomatoes at their house, writing on their sidewalk, calling them names.” Except for his mother, who worked during the day and attended college at night, and who befriended them, “starting with welcoming them with a casserole.” As a result, some of their white neighbors turned on his mother, writing insults on the sidewalk in front of their house. But his mother never wavered, Porterfield said.

Soon, a lot of black families moved in, with many white families fleeing to all-white neighborhoods. But the Porterfields stayed. “My mom became friends with more of the new families. We had normal friends who played touch football, roller hockey in the streets, just did stuff together. Part of the political education I had growing up was realizing that I had to choose what kind of white person I wanted to be. There were two models, and they were crystal clear. One was my mother, who welcomed new members to the neighborhood. The other were people who tried to make them go away. The people who were resistant to integration were not the way I wanted to be.”

And then came the second defining influence. In seventh grade, Porterfield moved to a middle school that, due to overcrowding, had adopted a shift system that would have left Porterfield waiting at school for hours until his mother got back from her night classes. “I experienced what it feels like in a household when a school system has basically said to their parents: ‘You’re on your own.’” Desperate for an alternative, his mother took him to St. Paul’s School, an elite boys school in Baltimore County, and asked for a scholarship — which was granted. Arriving at St. Paul’s was an academic shock. Porterfield had no idea how far behind the traditional Baltimore public schools had left him.

“I didn’t know what equations were. I didn’t know what an outline was. I remember crying at dinner with my mother trying to understand what an outline was. Diagramming sentences was a foreign concept, incredibly scary.” What Porterfield learned quickly, and regards as a lifelong lesson, is that it’s possible to catch up. His next move was into Loyola Blakefield, a Jesuit high school, and then on to Georgetown University, later becoming a Rhodes Scholar. At Georgetown, both as a professor and later as an administrator, he made his mark by heeding the life lessons he learned in Baltimore, reaching out to help disadvantaged students.

A boy from the South Bronx brings change to F&M

Donnell Butler seems an unlikely alum of Franklin & Marshall College, a small but distinguished institution which for years enrolled an almost entirely white student body. Butler, who is black, grew up on Fulton Avenue in the South Bronx. For those unfamiliar with New York City, the South Bronx, at least in the 1970s and ’80s, was a national symbol of urban decay, hopelessness, and crime. Even today, the 15th Congressional District, which encompasses the South Bronx, ranks as one of the poorest in the nation.

Butler’s experience there differs from many, in part because his mother, who was divorced from his biological father, met a soldier, which meant that Butler got a good dose of highly respected military schools, both in North Carolina and Germany. Later, when he returned to the South Bronx, he showed up in fifth grade at P.S. 132 and wowed everyone with his sky-high test scores in both reading and math. “Nobody had ever scored that high before, so it became kind of a big deal. I got nominated for a program in New York called Prep for Prep, which helped prepare and place me into a private high school in New York.”

Not just any private high school — Horace Mann, founded in 1887 and home to many of Manhattan’s most elite and wealthy students. Not surprisingly, in his senior year, Butler had several prestigious college options. He was accepted to both Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, but he chose Franklin & Marshall. That’s where he felt most comfortable on his college tours, meeting many of the top people there. “I needed to pick a place where I could grow and develop and not get lost in the shuffle. I got sold on everything about F&M, about them being the ‘Diplomats’ [the nickname for the teams there].” So he came to Lancaster, joining a freshman class that had fewer than a handful of black males, and he graduated in 1995 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Princeton University, while also staying in touch with Franklin & Marshall.

At one point, while sitting in his office at Princeton, where he worked for a public policy research firm, he got a call from F&M’s dean of college, who bluntly told him: “We have a problem.” It appeared that F&M was about to admit a class of 500 freshman with only five black male students, meaning the college had made no real progress on diversity since Butler’s days as an undergrad. Butler offered some advice, and a year later, F&M joined Posse, which pioneered the college success strategy of convincing schools to take small groups of minorities — a posse — that could lean on one another, easing the adjustment to college life, especially on a small, rural Pennsylvania campus where not only were most of the students white, but most came from well-off families.

Then, a few years later, Butler got a call from a friend. Have you seen this Institute for College Access & Success report listing F&M in the top 10 colleges with the least socioeconomically diverse campuses in the country? This time, Butler reached out to F&M leaders with the message: Not a good look.

What happened next was a series of candid conversations among F&M’s leadership. The tuition there was high (today, nearly $70,000 with room and board). F&M was among scores of small colleges competing for students from a shrinking pool of families able to pay full freight. How long could that last? And even if that were possible, the campus would lack any racial and socioeconomic diversity, which would further compromise its desirability. The college’s board of trustees realized it needed a fresh strategy, and they happened to be selecting a new president. Where could we find someone who could take us to this new vision? They settled on Dan Porterfield, then at Georgetown University, working as a senior vice president for strategic development, a role that included reaching out to first-generation students.

Butler recalls watching that announcement live streamed and thinking, “Hmmm, this could be interesting.” About a year later, he got a call from a top F&M dean, asking for recommendations about fleshing out the new vision, especially transforming the career services office into more of a student development office. Good idea, he thought. Then he got another call from the college dean: You know, you really should meet Dan. How about homecoming? OK, said Butler, but I’m only going to be there for a day. What was supposed to be a quick meeting turned into a long one, with Porterfield’s staff saying, “Dan, you really have to go.” Then Porterfield reached out again, in December of 2011, this time asking to talk with Butler during the college president’s two-hour drive from Washington to Lancaster. “We spent the entire time brainstorming. He kept me up past my bedtime. It was about midnight when we got off the phone.”

Eventually, Porterfield and other top F&M deans lured Butler back to the campus, hoping to hire him to help carry out the new diversity mission. Butler made the rounds of the top college leaders — This is a really conservative campus. Is everyone really on board with this? — and found himself, at the end of the day, with Porterfield. “Dan pulls out a piece of paper and he basically does what car salesmen do, and he draws the four quadrants of decision-making [what happens if this happens, what happens if this doesn’t happen, etc.] and starts walking through it.” Basically, Porterfield argued that Butler was the key guy to carry out the campaign to make F&M a more inclusive institution. Even then, knowing how tradition-bound the campus was, Butler insisted on meeting with at least one trustee who was truly on board. He did, became convinced, and signed on in the summer of 2012. Today, he’s a senior associate dean overseeing the planning and analysis of student outcomes.

Together Porterfield and Butler, with the help of many others, began reshaping the campus under what was called the Next Generation Initiative. A blizzard of changes transpired to bring more first-generation students to F&M: partnerships with KIPP and groups such as Posse and College Track, major shifts away from “merit aid” (often used by colleges as a competitive tool to attract top students whose parents can afford to pay more of the expenses) and considerable fundraising to target first-generation students. The result: Five percent of the 2008 freshman class were Pell Grant recipients. Since 2011, that rate has risen to 17 percent or higher. Need-based financial aid for the 2008 class was $5.8 million, climbing to $13 million by the freshman class of 2014.

To offset those investments, F&M increased enrollment (from 2009 to 2011, the enrollment went from 2,100 to 2,300 students) to bring in more revenue and discarded some programs, including paying to send a group of students and a professor to France every year. The college pioneered new programs, such as F&M College Prep for rising high school seniors, where each summer 70 first-generation students, many of them from urban charter schools, come to campus for three weeks of classes and projects. Not all of them end up attending F&M, but they all return with a taste of what college rigor and college culture are like. To ensure a steady influx of college-ready first-generation students, F&M formed alliances with top charter school networks and advocacy groups that help low-income students to and through college.

Being the only black person in class

Tall, thin, and somewhat shy with a formal bearing, Charisma Lambert, an F&M senior, grew up in Newark, where she lost both her parents before the age of 6. She and her brother were brought up by their aunt, who had two children of her own and worked two jobs — driving kids to school and taking care of the elderly and disabled. “And when she got back, she would jump into cooking for us,” Lambert says.


 

“It was very overwhelming to go to classes for the first day, and the first week, and come back with the realization of, ‘Wow, I was the only black person in that class that week.’”
— Charisma Lambert, F&M graduate


Until sixth grade, Lambert attended Newark Public Schools. When she was in fifth grade, one of her teachers left for North Star Academy, making sure Lambert’s aunt received a pamphlet about the well-known charter school before she went. They applied, and after a short time on the waiting list, Lambert started school there.

“I was definitely overwhelmed that first week,” said Lambert, who wanted to return to her old school. “In the past, I could get away with doing the bare minimum and still passing and not studying. I went to North Star, and it was like, ‘I have to study.’” Gradually, however, she grew comfortable with the challenge. By the time she graduated, she had a nearly 4.0 grade point average and several college options, including Franklin & Marshall, which she chose, in part because she attended the three-week College Prep program. And there were other reasons. “My high school had drilled into our heads that liberal arts colleges are the way to go.” It’s a familiar message at many top charters, where college advisers seek out smaller colleges where their graduates are likely to receive more individual attention, boosting their likelihood of earning degrees.

Charisma Lambert graduated from Franklin & Marshall College with support from two counselors from her Newark, N.J., charter high school and two from F&M. (Richard Whitmire)

Despite having gone to the F&M summer program, the freshman-year arrival was a shock. The class of 620 bore little resemblance to the diverse College Prep session. “It was very overwhelming to go to classes for the first day, and the first week, and come back with the realization of, ‘Wow, I was the only black person in that class that week.’”

Not until her junior and senior years, when Lambert took on leadership roles in several clubs, did she begin to have much contact with her largely well-off white classmates. And even those exchanges could be strained. Once, during a class discussion about campus turmoil at the University of Missouri, she noticed that she and two other black students were doing all the talking. When the professor pressed the other students to speak up, one white female student replied, “I don’t want to say anything wrong.” Another student: “I just don’t feel like it’s my place to speak about this.” The left Lambert exasperated. “They should speak up, to say, ‘This is how we view things; this is our lived experience.’”

That said, Lambert realizes her campus is far more diverse than most private, liberal arts colleges. And she also acknowledges the help she got making it through — four separate advisers looking after her, two from North Star and two from F&M. The North Star counselors, who came to the campus once a semester for her first two years, were most helpful, she said, in managing logistical challenges, such as GPAs and staying on track for graduation in four years, and her upper-class student adviser helped with social issues.

In the end, it all worked. Lambert graduated in four years and now works in a KIPP charter school in Baltimore with Teach for America.

‘A chance to live that dream’

The talent strategy engineered by Porterfield produced some major changes at F&M. The proportion of students eligible for Pell Grants rose sharply. About 23 percent of the class of 2020 are students of color, compared with 11 percent of the class of 2012, says F&M. Amid those shifts, the SAT scores have remained steady, while F&M has become significantly more selective, according to the college. F&M students receiving need-based aid graduate at the same rate as other students, and with matching or higher GPAs, says F&M.

When my interview time with Porterfield expired, and his aides arrived to insist he stay on schedule with his next appointment, I turned off my recorder and started packing up. But Porterfield wasn’t finished. He had more to say. He walked me through the personal stories of about a dozen first-generation students who had come to F&M.

“Take Markera Jones,” he said, “a first-generation college-goer from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, who went to a segregated school. In ninth grade, she was the only African-American student allowed into an advanced class, and she stepped out of that class, saying she couldn’t go if it was to her advantage and to the detriment of others. She went through the mainstream curriculum at Coatesville High School, earned excellent grades, and was encouraged by her advisers to go to a local open access institution with a 10 percent graduation rate. But because she had visited F&M, she chose to come to this campus. Four years later, she went into Teach for America in Memphis and then earned a full scholarship to get a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Illinois, where she is now.”

After running through his long list of success stories, Porterfield wrapped up: “This is what America and education are all about. Giving people from communities a chance to reshape the country and help us have a strong national future, inclusively and creatively together. A chance to live that dream.” This is why Porterfield has emerged as one of the most important leaders in the effort to grow college success rates for first-generation students. To Porterfield this is not a cause; it’s an American narrative.

Franklin & Marshall is not the only college or university pioneering new ways to not just reach out to first-generation students but ensure they graduate. In the next chapter I’ll describe what UCLA is doing with an aggressive program to bring in promising transfer students from California community colleges. What’s different about Franklin & Marshall is that it produced a voice for the college success movement — Dan Porterfield.

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation funded a writing fellowship that helped produce The B.A. Breakthrough and provides financial support to The 74. The 74’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external impact for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the reporting or editing of this story.

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