Why Peer Pressure Is the Key to Getting Low-Income Kids on the College Track

A new initiative by the nonprofit College Summit is harnessing teenagers to talk to other teens about higher education.
(Photo: College Summit/Facebook)
Nov 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s common knowledge that a college diploma can be a young person’s ticket from poverty to the middle class. Less well known: Too many bright kids from poor backgrounds skip college because they don’t know it’s an option—or they may not understand how to apply, know what it takes to write a successful admissions essay, or know who can help them pay the tuition.

That’s where Antonio Brown and College Summit come in.

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Tall and handsome, with a laid-back charisma and an easy smile beneath a wispy teenage mustache, Brown is a popular upperclassman at his urban charter school, the kind of kid other kids look up to. That’s why College Summit, a nonprofit program that helps low-income, high-potential students see college as a reality, picked him for its new peer-educator training program and made him the star of a new video celebrating two decades of success.

“A lot of people don’t have hope where I live at, most people,” Brown says in the video, which traced his path from Washington, D.C., to a four-day boot camp on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, campus. “So I feel like I can be that person to bring the hope out in them. Because it’s never too late to change who you are.”

That’s music to the ears of Keith Frome and J.B. Schramm, who founded College Summit in the basement of a Washington low-income-housing building and grew it into a national network. Schramm said the idea hit while they were working as counselors at the low-budget basement teen center and noticed that too many students they saw as having college potential—smart, sociable, quick to learn—quit their education after high school.

“I had a chance to talk to a lot of parents. There were a couple kinds of conversations that would happen over and over again,” particularly with parents of young people who weren’t headed to college after high school, Schramm said. “Those were not fun conversations. And I could see in the moms’ and the dads’ eyes—some worry, some concern.”

When he talked to parents of students headed to college, “they had a different look in the eye—there was a pride, a confidence. I could see we had so many young people who were college material. Some of them didn’t understand that or realize that, but they were.”

At the same time, he said, the economic stakes are high: Economic analysts predict that a majority of jobs will require some postsecondary education. Yet college is riskier than ever, and students don’t have as much support as they need, Schramm said, facing an average school-counselor-to-student ratio of 900 to 1.

Inspiration struck, Schramm said, when he posted a sign-up sheet for a new tutoring program at the center, expecting just a handful of students to participate. But when the “two coolest guys at the teen center” signed up, the entire sheet was filled “within 15 minutes of them signing up.” 

“Who is most influential to a 17-year-old? Another 17-year-old,” he said. “It’s peer influence.”

That’s the concept behind Peer Forward, a new initiative that builds on the College Summit model with an eye to taking it nationwide. Partner schools will select their most influential students and do three things, Schramm said: form a team, send that team to a college campus for training in college access and community organizing, and send it back to its school to run a recruiting campaign to get kids’ friends to go to college.

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The goal, Schramm said: Put Peer Forward teams in 1,000 high schools by 2020.

Since College Summit began, Schramm said, “we’re seeing some really interesting results,” including a higher rate of students going to college and staying than their middle-class peers. Of 10 schools participating in Peer Forward, he added, students at nine submitted financial aid forms faster than had been done the year before.

“Peers can be very powerful when they’re equipped,” he said.

And knowledge is a powerful thing. Asked about his college plans in a Q&A session after the screening of his time at College Summit, Brown said he’d like to attend American University, a private school in Washington, and study journalism.

But ultimately, Brown said, he’s going to enroll in “whichever school is going to offer me the most money.”