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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

To Help Students, One Company Has Unlocked $100 Million a Year in College Aid

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By Rick Hess — November 02, 2023 7 min read
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In an era of concerns about college affordability and connecting low-income high schoolers to postsecondary opportunities, Washington-based PeerForward helps thousands of mostly minority, mostly low-income students each year seek options beyond high school and tap the resources to take advantage of them. In 2021–22, PeerForward served 13,000 high school seniors and unlocked $96 million in financial aid. Given the timeliness of their work, I reached out to CEO Gary Linnen, who’s been with PeerForward since 2007, coming over from the Princeton Review (where his roles included serving as director of private tutoring). Here’s what Linnen had to say.

—Rick

Rick: What is PeerForward?

Gary: PeerForward’s mission is to connect students in low-income communities with higher education and careers so that they receive the opportunities and achieve the economic mobility that come with a postsecondary credential. The organization began as College Summit in the basement of a Washington community center in the ‘90s, helping four students write admissions essays and complete applications. The founders noticed the students were taking the information and helping their peers to apply as well. From there, the organization set peer-driven initiatives as its foundation. With each new model over 25 years, peer-led methods remain at the core because we recognize that a 17-year-old is more likely to listen to another 17-year-old than an adult. Since then, PeerForward has lit the pathway to higher education for more than 600,000 students nationally.

Rick: Can you explain how the PeerForward model actually works?

Gary: PeerForward supports teams of students in high schools and colleges who organize campaigns and one-on-one mentoring to get their peers to apply to higher education and to succeed once enrolled. These “peer leaders” complete rigorous training in leadership development and community organization and learn the ins and outs of the admissions process, including strategies for staying on track to degree completion. High school peer-leader responsibilities include encouraging students to complete postsecondary applications and the FAFSA as well as connecting students to academic and career opportunities. Those in college help build engagement and belonging on campus by hosting campuswide events or one-on-one mentoring meetings. Teams run a variety of programs including social media campaigns and application drives, and they invite alumni and corporate partners in to discuss their college and career journeys with current high school students. Their campaign work delivers the results for each partner school.

Rick: What kinds of training do you provide to peer leaders?

Gary: Rising seniors and advisers attend PeerForward’s transformational summer workshops, which are life-defining experiences for many of our peer leaders. The training is held on college campuses so students get a feel for campus life. PeerForward trains students in all aspects of admissions and retention, identifying the key steps that research shows lead to academic success. Students also learn to tell their own stories, develop their leadership styles, and form effective teams. Each high school student leaves with a draft of an admissions essay and a college list along with the skills and plans to help their peers do the same.

Rick: What moved you to join PeerForward back in 2007?

Gary: PeerForward was founded by three men from elite institutions who had been afforded the opportunity to pursue higher education when many of their friends were not: J.B. Schramm, Keith Frome, and Derek Canty. I have been with the organization for more than 16 years because of a similar motivation. I am a first-generation student from a low-income community. I had an opportunity to go to a private boarding school and then Cornell University. But I knew there were individuals as bright as me who were not so lucky. This organization gave me the chance to support communities similar to where I grew up in Spanish Harlem. As CEO, I am deeply committed to continuing the work for college access and success, but I’m equally proud of the work we do to develop young leaders.

Rick: How many students have you worked with?

Gary: As we head into the 2023–24 academic year, we will have 81 high school partners with 94 trained teams, which totals to more than 750 trained and activated peer leaders throughout 12 states plus Bermuda. These peer leaders will directly assist an estimated 14,000 high school seniors in their admissions process and educate and impact more than 65,000 students in grades 9–11. In our newer college program, we’re working with five colleges, where about 175 peer leaders will be trained to mentor more than 3,000 peers.

Rick: After the Supreme Court’s ruling on race-conscious admissions, there’s been a lot of attention on college admissions. What does this mean for your work?

Gary: The ruling only heightens the importance of our work. Take the admissions essay, where our work began nearly three decades ago. It’s more important now than ever, and thankfully, we have a tried-and-true method for pairing volunteers with students to draft essays. We believe that every person’s story is unique, and every child has the right to share their identity—including race, ethnicity, and community—and celebrate it. On a higher plane, we see only a greater need for peers to encourage and assist their friends and classmates to pursue higher education and to go forward as a community in spite of this latest barrier.

Rick: Harvard’s Raj Chetty has recently released a much-discussed study documenting the disadvantages that middle- and low-income students face when applying to elite schools. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve seen on this score and how PeerForward tries to address that?

Gary: Many don’t apply to elite schools because they don’t feel they belong there or don’t have the information about opportunities to attend such schools. You can remove the word “elite” and those same students still face numerous barriers to higher education, not the least of which is a lack of information and guidance. Most students in underresourced schools are battling for a guidance counselor’s attention with at least 400 other students. They may not have family who went to college and can show them the ropes. They certainly don’t have $10,000 to spend on essay coaches, test tutors, and college counselors that many higher-income families employ to improve their children’s chances of admission to elite schools. Every student needs a plan for education after high school. Our focus is on teaching students how to determine which schools are good fits—in other words, where they are likely to thrive and earn a credential. Some may be elite; some may be the local community college.

Rick: What’s the cost per student for what you do? And where do those dollars come from?

Gary: PeerForward has a cost-sharing model, with school fees covering about a third of the cost and philanthropy the remaining two-thirds. The fee for each partner school is usually near $15,000. PeerForward is a whole-school program, so the fee covers not only training and support for the peer leaders and adviser but also the services our team delivers to all students. Our work to create an economically viable, effective model for partners was so successful that it was featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Spring 2017 issue. Our high school costs dropped more than 90 percent, from $656 per student to $59 per student, by creating programmatic and operational efficiencies and putting peer leaders at the center of the work.

Rick: What do we know about the effectiveness of the PeerForward model? In particular, are there studies or evaluations that readers can check out?

Gary: In 2017, we contracted with University of Pittsburgh researchers Lindsay Page and Paul Scott to assess the effectiveness of our model. For two years in a row, researchers found that FAFSA completion rates were 15 percent higher in the PeerForward schools—the treatment group—compared with similarly situated schools—the synthetic control group. By comparing schools that are substantially similar, the researchers were able to isolate the positive effect of PeerForward implementation in the treatment schools. By achieving the goal of increased FAFSA completion, students in PeerForward schools unlocked approximately $7 million more in federal and state aid than they would have had they not implemented the program. The Brookings Institution published a paper on our program as an example of effective peer intervention.

Rick: If you have one tip for educators seeking to ensure that students aren’t limited by their circumstances, what would it be?

Gary: See them. Help them see their accomplishments, and their skills, and their power. They need adult allies who believe in them. The moment you switch your perspective of students from problems to be solved to problem solvers, it will change your whole operating system and bring about positive impact into our communities.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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