BNMK 0819/shutterstock
BNMK 0819/shutterstock

Applying to college and figuring out how to fund it isn’t easy, as any high school senior can tell you—and it can be particularly challenging for low-income students, people of color and kids who are the first in their family to go to college. Add a global pandemic that has put millions out of work and forced college counselors, campus tours and college fairs into cyberspace, and the road to college presents more obstacles than ever.

In California, the San Francisco-based Stupski Foundation aims to eliminate some of those obstacles for Bay Area students. The foundation recently channeled almost $5 million in “student-advising grants” to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and three of their community-based partners. The goal, according to Jennifer Nguyen, director of post-secondary success at Stupski, is to ensure first-generation college goers, students of color and students from low-income households “can enroll, persist through, and graduate with the skills they need to pursue their career goals.”

Acting Locally

The Stupski Foundation isn’t a banner name in the world of big philanthropy, but its targeted focus is making a difference in the communities it serves, according to local school counselors who serve as college advisors.

Joyce and Larry Stupski had some personal reasons for establishing the foundation in 1996 with the goal of transforming public education and closing the achievement gap. The couple shared a passion for education and a faith in its capacity to transform lives. Larry Stupski, who was president and CEO of Charles Schwab from 1981 to 1992, was a first-generation college student himself; he attended Princeton on a football scholarship and earned a law degree at Yale. Joyce Stupski, who was also first in her family to attend college, was an educator; she taught children with learning disabilities in the San Francisco public schools and later became a district administrator.

In 2003, Larry Stupski was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Despite many rounds of treatment over the course of a decade, by 2012, Stupski was gravely ill, and the couple closed the foundation. He died in 2013 at the age of 68, and Joyce Stupski re-established the Stupski Foundation as a spend-down in 2015. Over the next decade, Stubski will invest all of its assets in education, healthcare and food access programs for low-income communities in the Bay Area and Hawaii, closing its doors in 2029.

Ensuring postsecondary success is one of the Stupski Foundation’s four main program goals. Some recent gifts include, for example, investments to boost graduation rates at two Bay Area colleges, and a contribution to the California College Student Emergency Support Fund, which is helping low-income college students weather the financial impacts of the pandemic.

College Bound

One of the Stupski Foundation’s most recent gifts will enhance academic, financial aid and career counseling for high school seniors at 13 high schools in the Oakland and San Francisco school districts. The funds will go to the districts and three of their community-based partners: 10,000 Degrees, Center for Educational Partnerships and uAspire. The three organizations were chosen because they were already working in district public schools and have built a foundation of trust with school administrators and students alike.

The college advising services will be available to all students at the selected high schools, but they will be geared primarily to low-income students, “including approximately 1,700 students of color who have access to fewer resources and are often the least represented in college admissions,” according to the Stupski Foundation.

Although the donation was in the works before the pandemic, Karen Bioski-Simon, program administrator and postsecondary success coordinator at SFUSD, says the extra support for students is all the more important since the coronavirus has pushed classes online. “The pandemic has just magnified the need,” she says. “The college process is confusing for students, particularly if their parents don’t speak the language or didn’t go to college themselves. Now, because of the pandemic, they can’t just drop by the college room to ask a question, and our counselors can’t check in on kids in the lunchroom to remind them about application deadlines.”

The Stupski advising grants will allow the community-based organizations to boost their online advising services so they can proactively reach out to students. Near-peer counselors, known as college ambassadors (many of whom attended the high schools where they’re now working) will track students’ progress, connect them with resources like college fairs and digital college tour opportunities, and simply be available to offer advice and support.

Mark Heringer, principal at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, is particularly enthusiastic about the college ambassadors program. “Our students are much more likely to listen to a peer, someone who has recently gone through the process themselves,” he says. “The ambassadors can answer our students’ questions and offer support and act as role models in a way teachers and administrators and parents aren’t able to.”

There are indications that young people can use all the help they can get, given the isolation, financial pressures and health concerns triggered by the pandemic. High school administrators report that many students are simply not showing up for online classes, for example, and a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that young adults (18 to 24 years) are experiencing rising levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

“Remote learning means young people don’t have as many touchpoints,” says Nguyen of the Stupski Foundation. “The college ambassadors can offer an extra level of support. They’re there to help kids handle non-college-related issues, too, putting them in touch with mental health or other services they need.”

According to the SFUSD’s Bioski-Simon, the Stupski Foundation emphasizes communication and collaboration, which means frequent meetings with partners to exchange information and lessons learned, and sharing that information with counselors at other local high schools, as well. “I honestly don’t know what we’d be doing without this collaborative space during this difficult time,” she says. “It really makes a difference.”

Investing in College Success—and Why it Matters

As the pandemic drones on across the country, shuttering businesses and wiping out jobs, it’s already had an impact on college attendance—one that many fear will widen the achievement gap. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse, for example, found that as of early September, undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5% from last year, with community colleges—traditionally the route to a bachelor’s degree for low-income students—experiencing the steepest enrollment drop.

But according to Nguyen, research shows no corresponding diminishment in young peoples’ college hopes and dreams. “We don’t know why so many students aren’t enrolling in college right now, whether it has to do with economic issues or other pressures,” she says. “But the numbers that show the dip in enrollment don’t reflect any dip in the desire to go.”

That’s why Nguyen believes the recent Stupski donation is important—and why she is calling on other philanthropies to step up, too. “At a time when people without college degrees are losing their jobs in unprecedented numbers, we need to invest more—not less—in opportunities for students to complete a postsecondary degree,” she wrote recently in EdSource.

For Nguyen, the connection between a college degree and employment opportunity is obvious and deeply personal. During the 2009 recession, Nguyen, a college graduate, was able to find a job relatively easily while her father, a machinist without a college education, was laid off and forced into early retirement. “Dad was left in the dust while I was able to progress in my career,” she says. “It was really hard to watch a man who worked with his hands all his life suddenly unemployed, without a role anymore. I’m afraid we are going to leave a lot of people behind after the pandemic is over.”

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