When Ryan Liu was applying to schools as a high school senior, he knew he ultimately wanted a four-year degree. Yet even with offers of financial aid and a number of acceptances from four-year schools, tuition prices were out of his reach at the four-year institutions that accepted him in his home state of California.
So Liu decided to enroll in the local Pasadena Community College to save money and try his luck again later. “Second time around, when I was in community college and applying to school, that’s when I found out about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation,” he said.
Since its origins in 2000, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has offered a range of grants and scholarships to thousands of low-income students across the country. While higher education is often billed as a meritocracy, the numbers tell a different story. Elite schools tend to disproportionately enroll students from higher-income backgrounds.
A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that the nation’s most elite schools could afford to enroll more Pell grant recipients — and that tens of thousands of Pell-eligible students have the grades and scores that would qualify them for admittance at competitive schools but choose to attend open-access institutions instead. The Georgetown report proposes a requirement that Pell grant recipients make up 20 percent of a school’s enrollment, pointing out that some selective schools have already surpassed that mark.
From the start, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has sought to address disparities in the admissions process by providing the funding and support necessary to low-income, high-achieving students. In addition to grants and scholarships, the foundation provides a network of advisors and opportunities to explore different career and academic paths along the way.
As he researched different transfer options, Liu read about a student who gone from a community college to Stanford through the Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.
Through the transfer scholarship, the foundation covers up to $40,000 of education-related expenses for approximately 55 students each year. Liu was one of thousands who applied for the scholarship for 2015, and is now a rising senior at Yale University studying political science. He is the first in his family to attend college.
Speaking with Diverse at the foundation’s annual Scholars Weekend forum in Leesburg, Virginia, over the weekend, Liu reflected on the impact the transfer scholarship has had on his life. Transferring from a two-year school to a four-year school is not easy even in the best of circumstances, while elite schools like Yale accept only a small number of transfer students each year.
“At the community college, it’s tough,” Liu said. “We’re one of the better achieving community colleges in California, but like a lot of community colleges, it’s a large student population, resources are constantly being cut when the budget is being addressed, so it was tough, I think, for folks to find out about these opportunities.”
Sarah Kashef attended a private high school in northern Virginia, and had her sights set on Columbia University from early on. She has been a part of the foundation since she was a rising eighth grader through the Young Scholars program.
“I had the fortune of having the foundation on my side since I was very young, and I think that was very crucial in my path to college,” Kashef said.
As a Young Scholar, Kashef had access to an educational advisor who helped her chart her path to college and explore career options along the way. By the time she was a sophomore in high school, Kashef had already found her passion in global health and public health.
When it came time to apply to schools, however, she hit a roadblock of sorts. “I’m just not good at standardized testing and my college counselor made it seem like it would be impossible for me to get into Columbia,” Kasheff said. Her support network of family and Jack Kent Cooke advisors rallied around her, however, and she put Columbia in the list of the 15 schools she ultimately applied to.
As it turned out, she was accepted by all 15 schools. She is currently a senior at Columbia majoring in Urban Studies, Sociology and Public Health.
“I had a very great support system of people,” Kashef said. “Getting into Columbia and all of the schools that I applied to was a big deal to me, because there was kind of a lot of doubt on that side.”
For Shrochis Karki, being a Cooke Graduate Scholar meant the difference between being able to pursue a Ph.D. at Oxford University, or not at all. Karki was born and raised in Nepal, and while his parents hoped that he would go to medical school, Karki wanted to go further afield.
After finishing high school in Nepal, he applied to schools in the U.S., and received a scholarship to attend Kenyon College in Ohio. He was the first in his family to leave the Asian subcontinent to pursue an undergraduate degree.
During his time at Kenyon, Karki found his passion for development work, and aspired to go to school in the UK. However, as a Nepali studying in the US, there were very few scholarship options available that would allow him to pursue that route.
“The Jack Kent Cooke was pretty much the only scholarship that I was eligible for, and very luckily, I also ended up getting it, which made it possible for me to get my master’s and my Ph.D. at Oxford,” Karki said.
“I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I had a few other offers as well, but none with the kind of funding you need to actually do it,” Karki continued.
After completing his Ph.D. at Oxford, Karki now resides in the UK, where he works in education policy and development. He also founded the Samaanta Foundation, a nonprofit that provides fellowships for high school and college education for low-income students in Nepal.
While he is grateful for the opportunities he has had, Karki said that there are thousands of students who miss out on attaining their educational goals for financial and other reasons.
“That’s the story that gets (told) -– the people who made it,” he said. “But for me, what’s important is the people who didn’t.”
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].