College Track Closes the Achievement Gap

The nonprofit program with Oakland roots empowers low-income students to beat the odds and graduate from college.


Illustration by Serene Lusano

Before Safia Fasah was a law school graduate studying feverishly for the New York state bar exam, she was a bewildered freshman in college who had just received her first “F.”

It was a few weeks into her first semester at Columbia University, in 2011, and she had written an essay for a freshman composition class. When she turned in the assignment, she hadn’t thought much of it. School had always been easy for her; she found all the other stuff more overwhelming. Harlem seemed so far away from the neighborhood in which she had grown up in East Oakland — the people were less patient, the weather more humid, the subway system confusing. Oakland may have been similarly urban, but the Big Apple presented some mysteries.

As a bookish girl armed with nothing more than a pair of glasses and a flute, she had learned early how to trust her intuition and pay attention to her surroundings. At school, it wasn’t long before she began fielding questions like “Have you ever been shot at?” from some of her more affluent peers. “Um, I’ve definitely heard gunshots,” she would say, rolling her eyes. All of that stuff was annoying, but it wasn’t until the professor of handed her back that essay with a note — “Come see me” — that she thought to herself in earnest: “I don’t belong here.”

By almost any measure, students from lower-income families like Fasah’s are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to everything college. That’s old news. Over the last 20 years, a lot of energy has been poured into counteracting some of those inequalities. Scores of organizations focused on bridging the so-called “achievement gap” have provided more services to lower-income students than ever before. But while more students like Fasah have found themselves on campus, another problem has emerged: They’re not graduating.According to a seminal study in 2015 by the National Center for Education Statistics, low-income students are roughly three times less likely to graduate than your average college student. In some instances, small crises like Fasah’s can send an academic career into a tailspin.

Fortunately for her, she had a lifeline.

When Fasah was 14, she had enrolled in College Track, a comprehensive national college completion program that serves low-income students from communities like Oakland. Unlike other programs, the organization enrolls students at the beginning of high school and follows them through the end of college — a 10-year commitment. Over the years, the organization had provided Fasah with many of the services to which she would have never had access otherwise — things like one-on-one tutoring, college tours, and networking and scholarship opportunities. It had also provided her with a network of people to rely on for social and emotional support. Without such a program, it’s doubtful Fasah would have been sitting in an Ivy League classroom at all. After receiving that “F,” she summoned another skill she had learned during her years with College Track: how to ask for help.

She picked up the phone and called her College Track mentor, Jean Meyer, and told her about the ill-fated essay. Together they came up with a plan. She would go to a tutor and ask the professor if she could rewrite the paper. A few weeks later, the assignment was greeted with an A-minus — crisis averted. Four years later, she would graduate from Columbia and go straight to law school at Hofstra University, on Long Island. Even now, years removed from her receiving her bachelor’s degree, she still benefits from her relationship with College Track. A scholarship she earned from the organization is helping her pay the bills while she studies for the state bar examine. “There’s no way I’d be here without College Track,” Fasah said.

Today, more than 550 high school and college students from Oakland are enrolled with College Track. Nearly all of them are students of color from low-income households in Oakland, a demographic group that has historically failed to earn a degree. But unlike their peers, College Track alumni are not only heading to college, they’re finishing. Ninety-five percent are accepted into four-year universities, and two-thirds of them graduate, a rate higher than the national average for all students. Within five years of graduation, nearly all College Track alumni are earning more money than their parents.

“At College Track, we have a saying that ability is equally distributed, but opportunity is not,”said Omar Butler, an Oakland native and the executive director of the city’s branch of College Track.

Above all, Butler, who joined the organization in 2005, wants the trappings of college to appear normal rather than intimidating. Over the years, he’s aggressively brokered scholarship and internship opportunities for his students. And in some ways, it’s personal. Like most of his students, he was the first in his family to go to college. Despite that fact, he remembers how difficult it was to find work with a “skeletal” résumé and a cover letter “that probably had a bunch of typos. “When I saw the job at College Track, I said, ‘This is a perfect opportunity to make sure other Omars don’t pass up these opportunities.”

Over the last several years, the influence of College Track has grown well beyond the boundaries of the Bay Area. Today, there are nine locations across three states — California, Colorado, and Louisiana. Thanks to a generous $10 million commitment from Warriors superstar Kevin Durant, a 10th location is expected to open in Durant’s hometown of Prince George’s County, Maryland. It will be one of three new College Track centers in the D.C. Metro Area by 2021.

For her part, Fasah is anxious for the organization to open a branch in New York. “If they do, I’ll drop everything and be there!” She said. “I feel a sense of duty to give back. Me making it is cool, but I’m only one person.”

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