Access to education is the engine of upward mobility, and Operation Varsity Blues has focused the nation’s attention on a college admissions system that falls far short of any acceptable threshold of “fairness” — even when it’s not being gamed.
As long as deserving students are denied an equal opportunity to earn a college degree — still the most reliable ticket to a life of self-defined success and security — we shortchange our most valuable resource, the potential of our youth. That’s a liability for the future of the entire nation, not just for those on the wrong side of the wealth gap.
Opportunity should not discriminate, but the data doesn’t lie: 84 percent of low-income students, and 59 percent of students of color, do not graduate from college.
At Breakthrough Miami, one of 24 local outposts of the national Breakthrough Collaborative, none of this is breaking news. It’s the persistent reality behind Breakthrough’s 40-year history of helping motivated, low-income and minority students enroll in college and achieve their ambitious goals.
Since its inception, Breakthrough has helped close the opportunity gap for tens of thousands of students: Nationally, Breakthrough’s Class of 2018 high-school graduates entered four-year colleges and universities at a rate 50 percent higher than all U.S. high school graduates — including those from affluent families. More than half enrolled in colleges and universities rated very competitive or higher.
Breakthrough Scholars have the desire to succeed, but many challenges to overcome: schools with few resources, limited family incomes, lack of suitable role models. Breakthrough guides them along their educational pathways, providing the kind of enriching, eye-opening experiences enjoyed by more affluent peers.
Students are recruited before they reach middle school, then participate in summer and school- year academics and activities for eight years, through high-school graduation.
College prep starts early, by setting high expectations and nurturing confidence in a multicultural community of like-minded peers.
Mentoring is delivered by a highly diverse group of college undergraduates, recruited for Breakthrough’s nationally recognized summer teaching fellowship. Together, students and teaching fellows create a vibrant culture that promotes learning, self-empowerment and personal responsibility.
The result is a life-long network of support and social capital — and a powerful army of Breakthrough alumni, like these three from Miami, all of whom paid it forward by teaching in the program en route to impressive accomplishments:
▪ Briana Ruiz-Christophers, a med/Ph.D. student at Weil-Cornell Medical College, who spent her Princeton years as a mentor for other first-gen students.
▪ Jeremy Mathurin, now a robotics strategy analyst for Deloitte, was selected to be commencement speaker for his Hamilton College graduating class.
▪ Gricelda Ramos, a Dartmouth grad who is getting her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: “The first economics class I ever took was at Breakthrough, in my summer before seventh grade. I remember feeling at ease because of my Breakthrough teacher, who was a college student and a woman of color.” "Even now, When I feel uncertainty in graduate school, I recall that summer: If I passed an economics class then, I can surely pass it now.”
Stories like these are catalyzing support in Breakthrough communities nationwide — including San Francisco, New York, Boston, Twin Cities, Denver and Houston. This year, affiliates will serve more than 10,000 middle and high-school students — 1,300 in Miami — through generous community partnerships that leverage excellent educational resources typically available only to those who can pay. And our movement is growing: Equal opportunity for more qualified students, free of charge.
Breakthrough Scholars earn their way into college. They put in the work, dedicating summers and Saturdays for years, for application forms that tell the truth.
Breakthrough provides them with tools that help them get the equal shot they deserve.
We owe these students a college admissions system that upholds basic standards of fairness. Operation Varsity Blues is a symptom of a systemic issue that urgently needs our attention — and not just in the admissions office. It’s a problem that demands a holistic solution.
Investing in programs that open doors for students that have the talent and drive to succeed — but lack the resources of affluent parents — is a fundamental first step.
To learn more about Breakthrough Miami go to:
To learn more about becoming a teaching fellow and the national Breakthrough movement, go to:
Elissa Vanaver is CEO of the national Breakthrough Collaborative. Lori-Ann Cox is CEO of Breakthrough Miami.