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QuestBridge gets low-income achievers into high-level colleges

Arianna Trickey was opening a piece of mail in her bedroom during junior year of high school when a pamphlet fell out of the envelope. The pamphlet seemed to offer the impossible: the prospect of a full scholarship to several of her dream colleges.

She went running out to her father, a house painter. "You have to see this," she told him. "This is the scholarship that will get me to the best schools in the country."

The pamphlet was from a nonprofit organization called QuestBridge, which has quietly become one of the biggest players in elite-college admissions. Almost 300 undergraduates at Stanford this year, or 4 percent of the student body, came through QuestBridge. The share at Amherst is 11 percent, and it's 9 percent at Pomona. At Yale, the admissions office has changed its application to make it more like QuestBridge's.

Founded by a married couple in northern California — she an entrepreneur, he a doctor-turned-medical-investor — QuestBridge has figured out how to convince thousands of high-achieving, low-income students that they really can attend a top college. "It's like a national admissions office," said Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar.

The growth of QuestBridge has broader lessons for higher education — and for closing the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor teenagers.

College admissions officers attribute the organization's success to the simplicity of its approach to students. It avoids mind-numbingly complex talk of financial-aid forms and formulas that scare away so many low-income families. QuestBridge instead gives students a simple message: If you get in, you can go.

QuestBridge uses traditional databases, like those with SAT scores, as well as networks of high school teachers and others to recruit students. It has an early application deadline, in late September, and a long application form, designed to get students to tell the story of their lives.

Crucially, the program promises a scholarship not just for one year but for four. Ask Ana Rowena McCullough, the organization's chief executive, said, "Unless you make that kind of promise to the students and their parents, they're going to worry, 'Will the schools really pay for all four years?' "

The winners of the scholarships — which colleges pay for, as they do for much of QuestBridge's budget — go through a matching process. They attend their first choice among any of the 35 participating colleges that admit them. Hundreds of scholarship finalists who don't win are admitted separately to the colleges, through a more typical admissions process, often with nearly full scholarships. The students form a support network for one another, they say.