MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A lot of really smart high school students who deserve to go to top colleges don't. They come from poor families and don't have the support they need to get through the application and financial aid process. Well, now Bloomberg Philanthropies is leading a coalition to tackle the issue and is reaching out to more than 20,000 high school students across the country. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, headed by Harold Levy, is part of the group collaborating on the effort.
HAROLD LEVY: Historically, we have not really focused on high-performing, low-income kids. We focus relentlessly on the kids at the bottom because we want to pull them up. We think that the kids who are already performing at a high level don't need our help. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you take the kids who are in the top 25 percent academically on a standardized reading test, and then you pull out of that crowd all the kids who are also in the bottom quartile financially - so you've got very smart, very poor kids - 22 percent of them do not take the SAT or the ACT, and 23 percent don't go to college. That's mind blowing.
BLOCK: Now, the focus of this program is not just to get these high-performing, low-income kids to college, but to a top college.
LEVY: Right, because top-performing kids should be at top-performing colleges, and it's not just the institutions who happen to be the Ivies. We want to focus on the institutions that are nurturing of these kids. So the University of Maryland, Baltimore, campus has a fabulous reputation of getting black kids into PhD programs. What this program offers is getting those kids who have the potential to make it in these rigorous institutions to do so.
BLOCK: So what are the mechanics of - once you identify these kids - high-performing, low-income kids - what are the mechanics for getting them to apply to, first, and then get admitted to these top colleges?
LEVY: So this effort is aimed at hiring a 130 full-time counselors and designating 4,000 college students as part-time advisers. And they are going to be available to those students, but then also a number of Internet-based operations, organizations, are going to make those students available by Skype and by other distance modalities. In addition, we're working on a virtual advisor system, something in the nature of Siri.
BLOCK: A disembodied voice telling a kid how to apply to college?
BLOCK: That doesn't sound like it's going to work.
LEVY: None of this is perfect. In most of our public high schools, the counselors are just so overwhelmed. And what we can do by having virtual and distance advisement - for the kid who has nothing, it's a lifesaver.
BLOCK: Obviously, one hurdle is getting to apply to college, getting accepted to college. Another hurdle is staying in college - having the money to go and having the wherewithal to stay. So is there funding in the program for all of that and counseling for kids once they do get to college?
LEVY: This effort is aimed at college advisement and getting them in. If you're really poor, in a lot of the very elite institutions, there's money. I'm not going to say that there isn't also work-study that comes with that, and there often are other obligations that come with it that are onerous, but it's doable. I would also say that the state university systems, in many states, are really top notch institutions, and they don't cost anywhere as close. But there are plenty of schools where students - that are elite schools - where students who will get in because of the work of the Bloomberg Philanthropy and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the College Advising Corps. They will get in, and either they won't be able to go or they'll go and they'll have a very tough time of it because there's just not enough funding to support the tuition. That's an issue. It remains an issue, and there's no naysaying it.
BLOCK: Harold Levy is the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Thanks for coming in.
LEVY: Thank you.