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A Helping Hand To High Achievers

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the No. 4 philanthropist in 2013, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported. Bebeto Matthews/AP hide caption

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Bebeto Matthews/AP

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the No. 4 philanthropist in 2013, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to see more low-income high achievers graduate from college. Tuesday, his charitable group, Bloomberg Philanthropies, announced that it has partnered with several colleges and nonprofits to "expand college access and completion" for these promising students.

Bloomberg committed to investing at least $10 million over the next two years. In a statement, he said the issue matters to the entire country:

"Many of America's brightest students don't apply to college simply because they lack access to the right information and guidance, particularly students from low- and middle-income families who want to go to competitive colleges but don't think they can afford it. That limits their opportunities and contradicts what we stand for as a society – and it holds us back as a nation because it prevents so many smart young people from contributing to the best of their abilities."

The money will not be spent on scholarships or tuition assistance. Instead, the Bloomberg plan focuses on building a network of advisers to help high school students navigate the college admission and financial aid process. The advisers will provide support through "video conferencing, screen- and document-sharing, text and instant messaging."

Online education powerhouse Khan Academy has also committed to developing a curriculum to help walk students through the college application process. And the Aspen Institute will bring together college presidents and experts to find new ways to get high-achieving, lower-income students into their schools.

The New York Times reports that this new team is already hard at work:

"On Monday, the coalition sent emails to 24,000 lower-income students with academic records suggesting they would do well at top colleges. Many eligible students will also receive four application-fee waivers. "

This is just the latest, high-profile effort meant to improve college access for lower-income students. In January, NPR's Claudio Sanchez reported on a meeting of more than 140 college presidents hosted by President Obama.

The White House produced a lengthy report on the issue, touting its efforts to increase Pell grants and college tax credits, give borrowers more flexibility when repaying student loans, and slow the rise in college tuition costs.

But challenges remain. Because these students often pay less tuition and receive more aid, it makes them less attractive to some expensive, highly selective schools. Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation told NPR earlier this year:

"There's very little incentive for universities to address a lack of economic diversity. ... Racial diversity is much more visible, and socioeconomic diversity is much more expensive to address because you have to provide financial aid."

David Leonhardt of The New York Times concurs:

"[T]he biggest question, to my mind, is how colleges will react if they receive substantially more applications from qualified low-income students than today. The Bloomberg effort does not include additional money for financial aid, and its advisers will try to steer students toward colleges that require less debt. So the colleges that admit more low-income standouts will be left with less tuition revenue."

In short, lots of challenges. And Bloomberg's effort takes them one at a time. After all, persuading schools to subsidize more low-income high achievers won't improve things until more of these students actually start applying.