In California, 43 percent of children live in low-income families, defined as income that is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty — NCCP. The same study shows that 80 percent of children whose parents do not have a high school degree live in low income families. The parents’ nativity and marital status also prove to have a marked effect on low income levels.
When Stanford University economics student Garrett Neiman took a social entrepreneurship class and joined forces with classmate Jessica Perez, CollegeSpring — formerly called SEE College Prep — was born. After starting his own SAT tutoring company, Neiman realized he wanted to make a difference in the lives of low-income students, and that another for-profit SAT prep company was not the way to do it.
“Our overall goal is to increase the number of low-income and first-generation college graduates in the U.S. and to play a role in closing the gap between low-income graduates and everyone else,” said Neiman, the CEO. “We’re leveling the playing field.”
The majority of students being served by CollegeSpring will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Nearly 85 percent of these students qualify for reduced or free lunches in their high schools, and the majority are from ethnic minorities.
Since the start of the program in 2008, students are experiencing a nearly 200 point increase on SAT scores after enduring the 80-hour program — with 60 of those hours split between SAT preparation and college admissions counseling, and with the other 20 hours for diagnostic testing. Students eventually complete four full-length practice SAT exams, in an authentic test-taking setting.
“There is less focus on “tips and tricks,” and more focus on the core academic fundamentals,” said Sean Simplicio, the president of Development and Operations. “In a standardized testing environment, the concepts [students] have learned are not easily translated. So they take four SAT tests here to practice.”
“It’s not as intensive or exhaustive,” said Neiman. “Our focus is to refresh them on topics they’re having difficulty with; when they’re familiar with something, it’s not so intimidating.”
According to the College Board, students in families that make less than $40,000 annually score an average of 356 points lower on the SAT than students whose families make more than $200,000.
“These students may have great teachers, but there may be deficits in their middle and elementary school education,” said Julie Bachur, the vice president of Programs. “They can also understand a concept, but are not familiar with the way these concepts will appear on SATs.”
The other part of the CollegeSpring course — admissions counseling — has proven to be equally important. Many students — especially those who are first-generation college students — do not have the knowledge to successfully apply to college. CollegeSpring was founded on the belief that it is the combination of SAT preparation and help with navigating the admissions process that will produce a successful outcome for students.
“Students want to know how to get accepted, how to receive financial aid, scholarships, how to improve writing skills, and what extracurricular activities they should be a part of,” explained Stanford senior Laura Pulido, who served as a mentor for low-income students at CollegeSpring during the summer.
Another barrier for many low-income students in high school is the inaccessibility to a guidance counselor. The average ratio of students to guidance counselors at many public schools reaches 1,000:1, according to the organization’s website link: http://collegespring.org/about-us/.
“The groups of students are split up into smaller groups of three to five, and their undergraduate mentor works with them to build a college list, apply for financial aid and scholarships, and motivate them to understand why college and their SATs are so important,” said Neiman.
Since the mentors are college students, they tend to be very close in age grouping with the high school students, and therefore are easier to relate to. The professional teachers that are hired by CollegeSpring to re-teach learning fundamentals — while a huge help — are still teaching a class of about thirty students on a full time basis, making personal tailored instruction that much more difficult.
“The college students can bridge that gap,” said Bachur. “They can provide for a targeted audience.”
“It can be very ineffective to lecture a group of students,” said Pulido, a health and development psychology major. “That one-on-one connection definitely makes a huge difference. There’s more validation when the advice is coming from someone closer to their age. We tell them we should all strive to attain a college degree.”
The staff at CollegeSpring weighs motivation and understanding the importance of the SAT test to be just as crucial as the tutoring itself.
“Many colleges look at grade-point average – GPA – to be just as important as SAT scores,” said Simplicio. “When you have students that really want to do well and go to college, the last thing you want is SAT scores standing in the way.”
Eventually, CollegeSpring hopes to measure their success by the number of college graduates who have been through the program, as well as upon official SAT test score improvements. Receiving official test data is a new development that will continue to grow for the still relatively young company.
“We still hold true to our original mission, but the approach has changed,” said Neiman. “We’re striving for the highest quality, the best curriculum, and for the program to be tailored to the demographic.”
CollegeSpring is staffed by 12 full-time employees, not including the teachers and undergraduate mentors who are hired. They reside in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The nonprofit organization is funded by partner fees, work-study subsidies, grants and donations. While a large majority of the funds are philanthropic, the schools participating in College Spring contribute about 20 percent of the funds, and the work-study subsidies make up approximately another 5 percent.
Since 2008, CollegeSpring has helped more than 2,100 students in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles improve their SAT scores and navigate the college admissions process. It is the largest nonprofit organization in California offering SAT preparation and college counseling to low-income students.
For more information on becoming a mentor, a teacher or donor, contact www.collegespring.org.