Venture Capitalists Investing in Low-Income Students at Top Colleges

A group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists has been pouring resources into an education nonprofit that is working to boost the number of low-income students who apply to top colleges around the country, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Investors including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Benchmark Capital partner Matt Cohler, angel investor Timothy Ferriss, and biotech investor Juan Enriquez have contributed financial and advisory support to QuestBridge, which was founded in 2003 to connect disadvantaged students with elite colleges that, in turn, pay QuestBridge a recruiting fee. One of their goals, investors in the organization told the Journal, is to help build a deeper talent pool for U.S. corporations, especially in jobs requiring so-called STEM skills. Today, QuestBridge annually helps place about two thousand low-income students at thirty-five mostly private colleges, including Stanford and Yale, from an applicant pool of more than ten thousand.

A 2012 research paper by economists Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard University found that many low-income students never consider applying to elite schools because they aren't encouraged to or lack information about the financial aid policies of such schools. To help address those gaps, QuestBridge co-founders Michael McCullough and his wife, Ana, created a network of recruiters, including high school counselors, to identify a pool of gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. Students fill out an online application; QuestBridge chooses finalists based on a variety of factors, including academic performance, financial need, and personal life experiences such as having to work while attending school, while the partner colleges make the final selections.

In recent years, a pilot program offering incentives such as laptops to high school juniors who submit their academic information early as a way to broaden the pool of college applicants has garnered support from QuestBridge investors, while another donor helped sponsor a scholarship competition for gifted Native-American juniors that boosted the number of applicants from thirty-four in 2010 to more than three hundred and fifty a year later. Meanwhile, an initiative launched in New York City in 2012 with initial funding from the Heckscher Foundation for Children helped raise the number of low-income applicants by 50 percent in a single year.

One of the organization's long-term goals is to create an internship program that would charge companies that wanted access to its database of student information. "The only thing corporations want when looking for college graduates, beyond a diversity goal, is the best and brightest and most ambitious people they can find," said Cohler. "And a lot of times those are people who come from less advantaged backgrounds."

Jim Carlton. "Venture Capitalists Help Connect Low-Income Students With Elite Colleges." Wall Street Journal 05/13/2015.