February 2014 Features

A Commitment to Access

President Kim Cassidy represents Bryn Mawr at White House summit on higher education opportunity for underserved students.

By Priya Ratneshwar

Even though a series of family crises kept Dawn Joyner ’15 from completing her degree the first time she went to college at Penn State Abington, she always knew that she was a “nerd at heart.” A lifelong Philadelphia resident, she would take courses at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) every time a new topic sparked her interest. After she lost her job in the recession a few years ago, Joyner again turned to CCP. That’s when she learned that she was just eight credits away from completing her associate’s degree and took a class with Professor of Sociology Lisa Handler.

“Well, Dr. Handler just blew my head off in the first hour of the first day of class,” Joyner recalls. “I didn’t know how I would finish school and just go back to work and not keep learning about sociology the way I wanted to.”

Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy, Founder and President of the Posse Foundation Deborah Bial, and Posse Board Chair Jeff Ubben at the White House summit on increasing college access and completion rates for underserved students.

Bryn Mawr College President Kim Cassidy, Founder and President of the Posse
Foundation Deborah Bial, and Posse Board Chair Jeff Ubben at the White House summit
on increasing college access and completion rates for underserved students.

Joyner got into the University of Pennsylvania through the McNair Scholars Program, but, on the insistence of Handler, she also applied to Bryn Mawr through its Community College Connection (C3) program. Launched in 2011 with start-up funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, C3 is a partnership between Bryn Mawr and CCP and Montgomery County Community College to create a pipeline for high-achieving, low-income community college students to transfer to Bryn Mawr.

One visit to campus convinced Joyner that Bryn Mawr was the place for her. “There are no words I have to describe what it felt like to be in a place that was completely inclusive,” Joyner says, “and to have interactions with people who just really wanted you to be there.”

The C3 program is one of several initiatives that Bryn Mawr has launched in recent years that align with its commitment to provide access to educational excellence for talented women of all backgrounds. Earlier this year, these initiatives garnered Bryn Mawr President Kim Cassidy an invitation to join President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and a group of approximately 150 higher education, government, philanthropic, and business leaders for a White House summit on increasing college access and completion rates for underserved students, especially those from low-income families and underrepresented minority groups.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2011, the immediate college enrollment rate for high school graduates from low-income families was 52 percent—30 percentage points lower than the rate for graduates from high-income families and 14 percent lower than the rate for graduates from middle-income families.

Once enrolled, low-income students continue to face challenges. A 2011 Pell study showed that only 19.5 percent of Pell Grant recipients enrolled in any postsecondary institution in the fall of 2003 went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years compared to nearly 37 percent of all non-Pell Grant recipients.

The conference, Cassidy explains in her blog Dispatches from Taylor Hall, was a mobilization of higher education to share ideas and to make commitments to concrete actions that will begin to address these inequalities.

“It is hard to capture what it felt like to be present at this gathering,” Cassidy writes. “I was extraordinarily proud of the College. We were invited because of Bryn Mawr’s dedication, especially over the past decade, to providing access to an excellent education for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds. … We were also in the room because we continue to challenge ourselves in new ways.”

As part of the summit, the College committed to expand the C3 program by providing funding for the program from its own resources and expanding it to include students from all two-year institutions across the country.

The White House also recognized the College for its partnership with the Posse Foundation, which identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership promise who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. Posse extends to these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams—Posses—of 10 students. Posse partner colleges and universities award Posse Scholars four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships.

Bryn Mawr has hosted a Posse every year since the fall of 2001, and this year increased its participation by enrolling a Posse from Houston and the first-ever “STEM Posse”—comprising Boston-area students—at a women’s college. Bryn Mawr’s STEM Posse program offers students innovative curricula and funds early research opportunities. It also provides them with comprehensive mentoring, such as a two-week immersion in STEM and leadership mini-courses before they enter and weekly meetings with a faculty advisor during their freshman and sophomore years.

“The Posse program works to bring leaders from a variety of backgrounds to campus, and they have had academic success in almost all our majors, but before this year, few have chosen to go into the STEM fields,” says Assistant Professor of Geology and STEM Posse advisor Pedro Marenco. “The diversity—in all senses of the term—that they bring is important to all fields, but is incredibly lacking in the STEM fields. The College is very aware of that, as is much of academia in general, and is asking, ‘Is there something we can do differently?’”

In addition, the College was cited for its ongoing efforts to provide access to students from all socioeconomic groups through its admissions policies and efforts. Noted specifically were Bryn Mawr’s 10-year Pell Grant enrollment average of 17 percent and the College’s collaboration with College Match, a program that gives female high school students in the Los Angeles public school system a chance to visit Bryn Mawr and to participate in college readiness workshops. In marked contrast to the national completion rates noted above, 82 percent of low-income students graduate from Bryn Mawr within six years of enrolling.

Assistant Dean and C3 Program Coordinator Christina Rose sees the impact of such efforts on a daily basis. “These brilliant women bring passion, diversity, and drive to campus, and watching them grow in confidence and in their feeling of belonging is amazing.”

Allegra Massaro ’15 says the C3 program gave her the opportunity to develop from a high school student who “wasn’t as invested in school as I should have been” to a Growth and Structure of Cities major who just returned from a comparative urban planning program that took her to New Orleans, Brazil, South Africa, and Vietnam. She is currently interviewing at J.P. Morgan with the goal of gaining experience in finance and is in the process of applying for research fellowships.

“Had you told me two or three years ago I would be at Bryn Mawr College, doing really well, and loving what I’m learning, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Massaro says. “I have been able to rebuild my relationship with my own intellectual curiosity—that is the greatest gift Bryn Mawr has given me.”

Read more on Bryn Mawr Now.