Jim McCorkell MPA 1999 and Traci Kirtley MPP 2000 prepare low-income students for successful participation in higher education. 

BY Robert O'Neill
Winter 2014

JIM MCCORKELL MPA 1999 LIKES TO SAY that his motivation for starting College Possible, a Minnesota-based nonprofit aimed at helping low-income students attend college, is part personal and part policy.

“The personal side was that I grew up in a low-income family with parents who didn’t finish high school, let alone get to college, and had pretty difficult lives,” McCorkell says. But Jim and his four siblings were all able to attend college, becoming doctors, engineers (and directors of nonprofits), giving him a strong vantage point from which to see the difference a college degree can make.

The policy side started at the Kennedy School. Studying the “transition points” in poor people’s lives—those moments when their life trajectories could be most affected—McCorkell focused on education. A few data points help explain his decision: Upper-income students are 9 to 10 times as likely as low-income students to graduate from a four-year college; about 200,000 low-income students are capable of attending college each year but do not; a four-year degree is the surest way out of poverty.

McCorkell’s first blueprints aimed narrowly at what he called “Kaplan for poor kids.” But as he developed a business plan for his fledgling NGO, he quickly realized that low-income kids need a lot more than just prep.

College Possible students are picked from a pool of applicants during their sophomore year of high school and begin as juniors. They get help with test preparation, college applications, and applying for financial aid and they also receive support through college.

The program now helps 15,000 students a year. After starting in the Twin Cities, it spread to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Portland, Oregon (the plan is eventually to reach 20,000 students in 10 cities). So far, the results have been impressive: 95 percent of the organization’s students earn admission to four-year colleges, and they graduate at five times the rate of their low-income peers.

Traci Kirtley MPP 2000, who knew McCorkell from their days at the Kennedy School, joined College Possible in 2004 and is now the director of programming and evaluation. McCorkell describes her as the architect of the nonprofit’s model—structuring the curriculum, training staff members, and using data to both motivate the group and hold it accountable.

Rigorous analysis is an important aspect of this work. College Possible has cooperated with Chris Avery, the Larsen Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Kennedy School, on a study of the efficacy of college access programs. Using a randomized controlled trial, Avery found that College Possible increased enrollment at four-year colleges by 15 percent (with some of the increase coming at the expense of enrollment at two-year colleges).

College Possible claims that its costs are about one-seventh of comparable federal programs because it uses AmeriCorps volunteers to help students. But, Kirtley emphasizes, it is more than just a cheap alternative: “College Possible is a more cost-effective solution and it works,” she says. McCorkell believes that if the federal government shifted funds toward their model, they could potentially reach all 200,000 low-income students capable of enrolling in college.

And that is the mission that keeps driving McCorkell and Kirtley. “One of the things this country is supposed to be about is that people are supposed to have the opportunity to go as far as their talents and their motivation will take them,” Kirtley says. “When I came here, I looked at it as a way to do my part to make sure that we as a nation are living up to the promise of opportunity.”