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Follow the Data Podcast: American Talent Initiative, A Progress Report

As members of the American Talent Initiative (ATI) convene this week, we are re-running an episode featuring a conversation between Dan Porterfield, ATI Steering Committee member, and Howard Wolfson, head of the education program here at Bloomberg Philanthropies. At the time this episode was recorded, Dan Porterfield was the president of Franklin & Marshall College; he is now the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

Colleges and universities continuously seek the best and brightest students – but too often, students with lower income backgrounds are overlooked. ATI has united schools with the joint mission to enroll 50,000 additional talented, low- and moderate-income students at institutions of higher education with strong graduation rates – by 2025.

ATI released a two-year progress report in December 2018. To date, 110 colleges and universities with graduation rates at or above 70% over six years—including state flagship universities, small liberal arts college, and the entire Ivy League—have joined ATI. According to the report, ATI member schools added 7,291 additional lower-income students. In terms of undergrad enrollment, that’s the equivalent of a whole new Stanford or Georgetown.

Listen to their conversation about the power of uniting schools in their mission to execute a “talent strategy.”

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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

In the United States, research shows less than 50 percent of high-achieving, lower-income students apply to a selective college or university despite the fact that they are talented and have great qualifications.

And – only six percent of the students at top colleges and universities are from lower-income backgrounds.

Colleges and universities are seeing this problem and doing something about it. College presidents are joining together in the American Talent Initiative or ATI, a program to increase the number of low- and moderate-income students enrolled at schools with the highest graduation rates. Their goal? To accept, enroll and graduate an additional 50,000 of these students by 2025.

We’re re-running an episode featuring a conversation between Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute – who is also a member of the ATI’s Steering Committee – and Howard Wolfson, the head of the education program here at Bloomberg Philanthropies. At the time this podcast was recorded, Dan Porterfield was the President of Franklin and Marshall College. They discuss the creation of ATI, how to hold schools accountable, and how to expand equitable practices beyond higher education.

Schools across the country from East coast Ivies to West coast universities to schools in Texas, Florida, and Tennessee have all pledged to be a part of the American Talent Initiative, created by Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with the Aspen Institute and Ithaka S and R. The program is a companion effort to our CollegePoint initiative – a program providing talented lower-income students with virtual college advisors to help them get the support they need to get into the college of their dreams.

In its first two years, ATI has established substantial momentum – and with continued commitment from schools is on track to meet its 2025 goal.

To date, 110 colleges and universities with graduation rates at or above 70 percent over six years—including state flagship universities, small liberal arts college, and the entire Ivy League—have joined ATI.

According to a report released in December 2018, ATI member schools added 7,291 additional lower-income students. In terms of undergrad enrollment, that’s the equivalent of a whole new Stanford or Georgetown.

To learn more about ATI, listen now.

HOWARD WOLFSON:  So Dan, tell us how the American Talent Initiative got started.  What was your motivation for getting involved in this issue?

DAN PORTERFIELD:  I became president of Franklin & Marshall College in March of 2011, and pretty quickly thereafter, with the partnership of my board, we launched a talent strategy. We put a significant amount of money into need-based financial aid and built pipelines to top schools and programs around the country with data, showing that low-income kids were achieving at high levels.  We partnered with other schools who brought the kids to F&M and they knocked the ball out of the park. Bang.  Just hit home run after home run. With the early success of our talent strategy, we came to Mike Bloomberg and asked if we could hold some workshops to think about this American problem of how to make sure that low-income kids who are high achieving get the college opportunity they’ve earned, and the rest is history.

WOLFSON:  What was the biggest challenge in incentivizing or encouraging or inducing the universities to join?  Talk a little about the process of reaching out to your colleagues and urging them to become members of the Talent Initiative.

PORTERFIELD: One of the bigger challenges that you face is the myth that maybe there aren’t a lot of high talent, high achieving, academically prepared, low-income kids out there, able to be successful right out of the box at an Ivy League or a U-Chicago or Georgetown or Franklin & Marshall. Our own experience told us there were a lot of kids in every zip code and every community.  So one of the first things that we did was we use research that Mayor Bloomberg had discussed with us, by the Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, that showed an enormous number of students every year, with very high grades and very high test scores, were not even applying to top schools.  Mayor Bloomberg created the program CollegePoint that gives free college advising to tens of thousands of such students now a year.  We took college presidents the data that Mike had helped us to uncover that showed, “Wow it’s a lot of talent out there.”

The second thing we did was we gave them the F&M playbook, and showed how we were able to reallocate money to need-base financial aid.  That investment and talented students helped drive overall academic quality for the whole school.  Then the third thing was that the incredible convening power of Mayor Bloomberg, working with you and with Jenny Kane and with the team, we came up with a model where we asked a few schools, “Would you want to team up and have a collective impact together to see if we could send a message across the country.  There’s lots of talented low-income students and we want to help those kids get great education.”

With the convening power of Bloomberg Philanthropies We approached a few presidents; Carol Quillen at Davidson, Michael Drake at Ohio State, Brit Kirwan who was then at Maryland, Ron Daniels at Hopkins, and we put together an early coalition of really interested schools.  Then I think it was the power of the examples of those schools that led a next wave of institutions like Princeton, and Harvard, and Stanford, and Yale to jump in and say, “Yeah, we’ll be in that.”  From there it’s just been great momentum – a snowball gaining size.

WOLFSON:  So the schools agree to take in more of these high achieving, low-income, moderate-income kids.  What’s the mechanism for holding them accountable to their pledges?  How do you intend to do that?

PORTERFIELD:  Every school has made the commitment that they will grow the number of their Pell Grant students.  We’ve set a national goal of 50,000 more Pell Grant students enrolled in the 290 schools across the country that have a 70% or higher graduation rate. A Pell Grant is a federal scholarship that’s provided to a college or university if they enroll a student whose income level is typically $40,000 a year or lower, and it’s about $5,800 dollars. We now have 96 schools, as of today, that have said, “We want to contribute to reaching that national goal.  We will grow our Pell percentage.” The schools are also making other kinds of commitments to help us advocate in the public space for access to low-income kids, and to contribute to an ongoing initiative dialogue about how to get better outcomes, not just graduation rates but even more high achievement. So if a school is not carrying its weight after the first two years of this, we’ll undoubtedly have a conversation say, “Hey look if you can’t make the progress you said you’re going to make, maybe this isn’t the right initiative for you.” And if it turns out then they still aren’t able to make progress, then we’ll probably make an adjustment.

WOLFSON:  When you talk to your peers do they say that their entrance into ATI has been well received? What’s in it for them?

PORTERFIELD:  That’s a good question. I think that what’s in it for some is the chance to get recognized for work they’re committed to, and have already been doing. They’re able to say to their trustees and their alums, “Hey, we’re not just increasing opportunity for great kids of modest background, but we’re doing it in partnership with the Ivy League.”  That’s incredibly validating for some presidents who are trying to be change-makers.  For others I think the incentive to join has been that some in their community said, “Hey look, Stanford is doing this. Rice is doing this. Duke is doing this. We should be doing it too.”  It’s been the pull of this incredible, powerful example.  I think it’s great to see these top schools that usually are competing against each other for prestige, for Rhodes scholars, for ballgame appearances; are now competing together to make sure that America’s top students get the education they deserve. There are different motivations that bring them into it.  I think every school that has raised their hand and said, “We’re in,” is sincere because after all, there is not that much benefit to joining an effort and then failing to carry your weight.

WOLFSON:  We’re at a particular moment in our nation’s history where there is a lot of national conversation around equity. The fact that there are large segments of our fellow Americans who feel left out.  How much do you think that sort of the national zeitgeist plays into an initiative like this?  Are people aware that we are having these kinds of conversations nationally and politically as they make these decisions to join ATI?

PORTERFIELD:  Yes, I think so. I think that most of the presidents that bring their institutions in, believe in the power and value of a high impact education to serve the one in the many, to launch young people into economic security and personal leadership, and a meaning-filled life. They believe in that for sure that that education is it’s all about upward mobility and empowerment, but at the same time I think that Presidents and others at institutions are sometimes unready to deviate from the normal standard pattern of how they build their schools or how they present their missions.  So the national mood, to point higher education in new directions, to say, “Higher education, you must respond to families that feel left out, to communities that feel unseen, and to talent that’s being uncultivated.  You must address that.” I think that’s actually helped our cause quite a bit; however, I would say this too, that higher education needs to do more than just the American Talent Initiative to really recapture that narrative that higher education is about empowering the country to achieve national greatness. We have a lot more to do besides the ATI.

WOLFSON:  Tell me what else we should be doing.

PORTERFIELD:  I think we should be fostering local economic development more intensively in both public and private institutions.  I think we should be partnering with K through 12 education so that we’re supporting real change making precollege education and not just waiting for the kids to come to us, but helping make sure that fifth graders, and sixth graders, and seventh graders get a better education. I also think we should be working with employers much more purposefully, to help provide job training and job skills to students who may not go to a two-year or four-year college, but nevertheless have a lot to contribute to our economy if we can help them develop the skills to succeed.

WOLFSON:  That’s a very expansive mission. It’s consistent with a lot of the things we think about here at Bloomberg Philanthropies. I imagine there are some college presidents who might hear you and say, “Look, it’s hard enough for me to deal with faculty relations, and figure out which students to take, and meet a budget. I can’t be responsible for necessarily making the world a different place.  I’m going to focus on my university.” Do you think it’s the role of a college president to have and implement kind of a broader expansive vision like that?

PORTERFIELD:  Absolutely. I think it’s the most joyful work we can be doing to reach out our arms and partnership and human fellow feeling to all parts, to all segments of our country and say education has a social role to play in helping to create and sustain a great democracy. I think actually the other idea that we exist in our own realm and ivory tower separate from the world is dangerous. Higher education can and must serve this country in every way the country needs to be served.

WOLFSON:  Polls show that there is increased skepticism of the mission of higher education, and that’s especially true among Republicans or conservatives. What of that does higher education bear responsibility for? And what can be done about it?

PORTERFIELD:  I think that higher education definitely bears responsibility first, for not drawing a clear enough line between what happens in college and ones professional and personal empowerment later in life. We have to do more work to – A. build programs that help empower people to work and to create economic security in their families.  And secondly we have to communicate better about what we’re doing that’s already working. Also I would say that one of the narratives about higher education is that it’s a privilege space where people talk to each other in kind of an echo chamber with a liberal bias, and while I don’t think that’s true, not uniformly true. I do think that colleges must emphasize powerfully, both on campus and off, the importance of the First Amendment and a Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Speech. Any failure we have to counter practices of people trying to silence unpopular views, or to assert that someone else doesn’t have a right to speak, need to be quickly and strongly condemned by higher education leaders. Now we have to teach students to listen and to slow down and not to condemn, but to open up their minds and to be open to perspectives different than their own. We can’t just dictate to student, but if we don’t engage this question of Freedom of Expression, shame on us because the power and value of higher education is that it allows all views to be heard and all ideas to be pursued, and so we have to stand for what we supposedly are.

WOLFSON:  College as a melting pot and ATI is designed to create even more diversity on campus. What responsibilities do colleges have to help students adjust to that experience? Can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a low-income student, first generation on a college campus like Franklin & Marshall? What does Franklin & Marshall do for a student like that?

PORTERFIELD:  It’s a nuanced strategy. So A. we should be increasing our enrollment of low-income kids and of course Franklin & Marshall’s tripled our Pell Grant students in the last 8 years. Then I think we work in partnership with students to listen to their experience and to with them, help to address maybe any blocks or barriers of knowledge or of opportunity that they feel are being presented. That said, I also think it’s very important to challenge students to create their own education; that the greatest empowerment you get from having a fantastic undergraduate education is that you know the rest of your life, you’re in control of your own learning.

I don’t think we should treat first generation students like precious pieces of pottery that somehow should be protected from the nicks and chips that come with a high-engagement, hard college education.  That’s part of it too then to reinforce in students, “You’re central here, you have a place, you belong, but it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be days when you feel other students have more money, and they will have more money.  There will be days when you feel that you haven’t learned something your classmate has; you can learn it.  Giving students that ability to believe in their own power to create their education is just as important, in my opinion, as trying to anticipate every single obstacle that a low-income student might face. It’s important that we engage those students in changing the community together, as opposed to protecting them from the difficulties they’ll face.

WOLFSON:  And are you working with the other colleges in the American Talent Initiative to help the students who come on and make sure they graduate, and provide them the supports that they need?

PORTERFIELD:  That’s critical, because you have to be able to show respect for students talent, so give them the financial aid they need. That’s the most important thing. And then, indeed, help them learn the kind of college knowledge or the hidden curriculum that comes with going to college for the first time. We’re part of an association of colleges in Pennsylvania that share a lot of promising practices about how to sort of demystify what college success looks like with first gen students, but we also can’t afford to make it look like we think they’re helpless and that somehow they need a college within a college to get them to the next level. They can do it. That’s why they have a full scholarship and that’s why we recruited them as talented kids that can get the job done and really then serve this country, empowered by their college education.  It’s not going to get any easier in graduate school, or med school, or law school and so it’s a combination of respect, nurturing, love, inclusion, absolutely lowering barriers, but also expecting students to be able to solve some of the difficulties of adjustment themselves because they can.

WOLFSON:  And how have these students done? What’s been your experience?

PORTERFIELD:  Well at Franklin & Marshall College we’ve had tremendous success. First of all the retention rates, 96% on average over 7 years.  Graduation rates for Pell students and the general student body, the same. The grades, the same B average for both. Interestingly, Pell Grant students were overrepresented last year in Suma and Magna Cum Laude, the highest awards that we give for grade point average, and they were overrepresented in Fulbright scholars. They also were overrepresented in Teach for America selection, and we are by the way the number one small college in the country in terms of TFA placements.

Our kids are achieving, and I think that’s the key point to make. We have embarked upon our strategy at F&M is a talent strategy. We see this collection of assets and gifts and potential that students bring. We nourish that; we sort of treat them as a collection of assets, not a collection of deficits. We hold them to high standards; we empower them to create their education. We don’t make excuses when they have some difficulty, but we also don’t have a cold shoulder when they’re experiencing the kinds of challenges that any 18 year old might face. And all of that together, it’s an alchemy, it is working at Franklin & Marshall College.

WOLFSON:  So Franklin & Marshall had really been a path breaking institution in this space, and anybody who is focused on this work knows the outstanding achievements that you’ve been able to accomplish during your tenure around inclusivity, and making college more available to these high- achieving, low-income kids. One of the complaints that we hear from college presidents is that the national rankings for universities doesn’t reflect any of that kind of work. When you go U.S. News and World Report or any of these other magazines or publications that rank colleges, the kinds of things that we’re talking about here don’t factor into their decision making in terms of, “This colleges number is number five, this college is number 10.” As a college president, how do you think about your work in the context of also making sure that you are doing well in the rankings?

PORTERFIELD: I think that it’s a balance. And the two problems with U.S. News and World Report, as it relates to that the talent strategy we embarked upon with the American Talent Initiative to expand opportunity, are that A. the U.S. News and World Report over emphasizes average SAT scores as a factor in one’s ranking, which is kind of not really in touch with all the scholarship that shows that the greatest predictor of high test scores is simply income. Secondly, perhaps more important, U.S. News and World Report recognize expenditures on education in its rankings, but it doesn’t count as an expenditure, financial aid expenditures. It’s like valuing a Broadway show because of the set, the money spent on the set, but not the money spent on the actors and that’s not right. I would like to see U.S. News and World Report make some changes.

One of the things that we’ve been able to do at F&M is to show our upper income stakeholders and our alums that our strategy is a talent strategy which enhances the education of all students. For instance, right now, I have three Pell Grant students who are receiving Fulbright scholarships; Michelle Bailey from rural Pennsylvania is in Taiwan, and Sarah Albrecht from Lancaster is in Spain, and Bendjhi Villiers from Miami is in the Czech Republic. Those three students enhance the education and the prestige of F&M; they made the school a better school for all students. They then won a big scholarship that makes F&M or more visible and more attractive in the public eye. Now a good talent strategy that finds low-income students who can really maximize education, will benefit everybody in the school and the overall image and prestige of the school.

WOLFSON:  You’re going to be leaving Franklin & Marshall. You’re going to be going to run the Aspen Institute. Talk a little bit, if you wouldn’t mind, I realize it is early days, you I haven’t even started yet, but what are you thinking about for the Aspen Institute? What’s your vision for an institution that has such a great history and track record?

PORTERFIELD:  The Aspen Institute is like this great global force for good. It runs leadership development for talented professionals from the U.S. and other countries. It holds convening where some of the best ideas are placed in front of the public for question and for discussion. It fosters what I would call action programs in more than 30 areas; whether it’s helping cities, or looking at oceans, or focusing on the future of work, that are about problem solving, not just about writing reports but about translating ideas into action, and even more. I’m privileged to join and excited to be a part of the future of the Aspen Institute, and if you were to say to me, “Well what direction will you be looking towards?” I would say A. serving young people, B. equity in education, C. helping to create a stronger future for the country so that today’s young people have something of power and value to then run when they grow up, and D. helping to make sure that we’re focusing attention on some of the really hard issues that the country has yet to fully grapple with.

Whether that’s the strengthening of institutions that are under some pressure right now to perform, because there is distrust about them. Or whether it’s looking at how technology is going to displace so many workers unless we find a way to retrain workers to hold jobs that will pay.  Or whether it’s looking at some of the great public health challenges in the country that are easy to look away, because solutions are hard to find but yet matter so much for our overall country’s wellbeing. I’d like Aspen as a place that focuses on the hard problems.  In that sense we’re a natural partner for Bloomberg Philanthropies, which always and only says, “Let’s do the work that matters for the country.”

WOLFSON:  What are you going to miss the most about being a college president at Franklin & Marshall?

PORTERFIELD:  I’m going to miss every single day, the excitement of being on a campus with 18 to 22 year olds who are making it count. The other day I was sitting in a meeting of an organization called IMPACT; Intelligent Men Purposely Accomplishing College Together.  It is a group of men of all ethnic background and identities that every Tuesday put on coats and ties, to show the campus that they’re present, and then that meet that night to ask the question of how are we going to help the community, how are we going to model great leadership and character for all students and for younger students?  And just being around college kids who are constantly focusing on the question, “What next? How am I going to express myself? How are we going to make a difference for one another?” That is the most beautiful thing about a campus, the meaning-making that occurs, day and night, 24/7; sometimes in class, sometimes in labs, sometimes on fields, sometimes in parties, sometimes in late night chat sessions, sometimes in dropping by the president’s office to bring me a cupcake and see what’s on my mind. I’m going to miss that a lot.

WOLFSON:  I didn’t know that they brought you cupcakes.

PORTERFIELD:  Well actually, Howard, I have an ice cream freezer in my office available to every single student, every day. It’s a black Maserati of small ice cream freezers and these kids are coming in constantly. I have at least 20 visitors a day.  Come on by some time, I’ve got chocolate éclairs just for you.

WOLFSON:  I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t bring any ice cream today. Well, it’s been a pleasure; lack of ice cream notwithstanding. You’ve done an amazing job at Franklin & Marshall you’ve been a wonderful partner for Bloomberg Philanthropies in this program, which is off to such a great start and we thank you for joining the podcast.

PORTERFIELD:  Absolutely, and by the way we’re just getting started. The great organs of civil society in this country; colleges and universities, great foundations, great nonprofits like the Aspen Institute, together fill a role that that government can’t play, that the private sector doesn’t play. It is about advocating for the families and communities of our country, and making sure that unmet needs are framed, posed, and solved using data as often as we can to help us know we’re getting there. You can go to the website, which will give you information about what we’re doing and our 50,000 student goal. And importantly, give you the list of 96 colleges and universities, north, south, east and west, big and small, public and private. Everything from Carlton in Minnesota to Rice in Texas, to the UC system in California, and find out if your school is on there.  If it’s not on there, you could contact the Admission Dean or the Head of Advancement or the President herself and say, “We really think that you should join. We’re going to find solutions. Thank you, Howard.

WOLFSON:  It’s a pleasure working with you.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. If you are interested in seeing if your school is part of the American Talent Initiative or how your school can join, visit You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanPorterfield and Howard Wolfson at @HowieWolf.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to our show and leave us a review or email us at to let us know what you’d like to hear from us. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas and Jenny Kane with music by Mark Piro – special thanks to Eric Sheppard.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.