The Character Movement

The Teachers’ Lounge Podcast – Jim McCorkell

Youth Frontiers’ Podcast, The Teachers’ Lounge, seeks to encourage dialogue on topics relevant to student growth and character development within our schools. For our 11th episode, we connected with College Possible Founder and CEO, Jim McCorkell.

Jim’s own experiences as a first-generation college graduate motivated him to start College Possible after earning a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His commitment to a future in which America’s children go as far as their talent, motivation and effort can take them has been rewarded. He’s received an Ashoka Fellowship, the Alumni Achievement Award from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was recognized by President Obama at a convening of nonprofit innovators at the White House.

Jim's Headshot

The following are some highlights from our conversation. Jim McCorkell’s responses are paraphrased with direct quotations in quotation marks.

On his personal connection to College Possible’s mission:

I grew up in a low-income family where neither parent graduated high school yet I and all of my siblings made it through college. The college journey transformed our lives and I wanted to see other low-income students receive those same opportunities. The disparity is alarming; the top quarter of students based on income are graduating from college at a rate of 80 percent while the bottom quarter are graduating at 8 percent. We shouldn’t tolerate living in a society where that kind of disparity is possible.

On College Possible’s process:

The high school to college leap challenges countless students, especially if you do not know someone who has done it before. Once you make it to college, you face another wave of academic, social and financial challenges. To make that leap, students need mentors and coaches who can show them what it looks like – they need to show them that it is possible. There’s magic to this pairing of recent college graduates with low-income students.

Getting young people to fulfill their potential is kind of psychological. If you have not seen anybody who looks like you or comes from your neighborhood make it to college and graduate – if you have not seen that – it is easy to think that it’s not for [you]. Seeing others succeed who are similar to you has a lot of power and it remains an integral part of College Possible’s model.

On the importance of non-cognitive attributes:

I think Youth Frontiers is doing what we do — focusing on character development. We obviously want our kids to succeed academically, but we also want them to develop non-cognitive attributes like determination, grit, and delayed gratification. Those are some of the traits that help you do better when you get to college – when you’re going to have to make your own judgments and manage your own time.

On the importance of teachers:

We need to help students believe that they can be what they want to be. Multi-generational concentrated poverty creates experiences where students believe they are less-than and that they cannot have dreams or achieve. Every teacher has the chance to teach students the same thing: that achieving and succeeding is for everyone. Teachers have the opportunity to help students see a different future for themselves.

I started out in the lowest reading group in second grade and moved up one group every grade level so that by sixth grade I was in the top reading group. While I went to graduate school at Harvard, it might come as a shock that I began in the lowest reading group. Had my teachers not believed in me and moved me up, which they didn’t need to do, I would not be where I am today. Sadly, when coming from a low-income family people make all kinds of judgments about you and what you are capable of. If it wasn’t for particular investments from teachers, I never would have believed that I could make it out of the lowest reading level.

Listen to the full episode here. You can also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.

To find out more about Jim McCorkell and College Possible, visit their website.

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