It is widely recognized that the college admissions process - and higher education in general - is not fair for all students.
The 500 best-funded and most selective colleges in the US are almost 75% white, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. 72% of white students finish a four-year degree within six years, compared to just 56% of Hispanic and 46 percent of black students. And only 55% of white students must go into debt to finish their education, compared with 75% of black and Hispanic students.
As the Executive Director of Kaplan Educational Foundation (KEF) - a nonprofit that helps under-resourced community college students transition to attend selective universities - Nolvia Delgado is working to make education equitable for all. In this interview, she describes her personal journey through KEF, how it serves students, and how the education system will continue to be impacted by the loss of affirmative action.
From Scholar to Leader
One of the factors that makes Nolvia such a powerful leader for this cause is that she was once a member of KEF, and personally faced many of the challenges that KEF students deal with. Nolvia immigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was five with her mom and brother, and grew up in an apartment in Queens. She was the first in her family to attend college, and entered the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2007 before transferring to Smith in 2009.
“My experience was definitely challenging,” Nolvia recalls. “Leaving New York and going to a school that was completely different from what I was used to was difficult, and I definitely leaned on KEF a lot to support me. I remember an academic advisor, Nancy Lee Sanchez [KEF's former Executive Director], and if it wasn’t for her I don’t know if I would have made it through. But in the end, I do think anything worthwhile is going to be a lot of work. I wouldn’t do things differently even if I could.”
For Nolvia, going to a community college first before transferring to a four-year school was extremely helpful. "I think that having the foundation of going to community college gave me a different perspective, because I got to learn and interact with students from different walks of life. This really informed my opinion so when I got to Smith, I really approached everything with a different lens."
After graduating from Smith, Nolvia continued volunteering for KEF while working with other companies until, in 2022, she accepted the position of Executive Director at the very foundation that helped her achieve her goals. "I decided to come back because KEF was just such a big part of my life. I thought it would be a really interesting experience to be at the foundation as a former scholar, and lead from a scholar's perspective. It's a way of giving back, and for me it’s a homecoming in many ways."
Courtesy of Kaplan Educational Foundation
Impact of KEF
KEF focuses on helping low-income, underrepresented community college students transition to a four-year university. The foundation offers scholarships and advice on applications, but it also provides students with leadership development, mentoring, career planning, and the opportunity to talk to an advisor about any issues they might have. The process looks slightly different for each student.
"It’s a very individualized approach that we take with each student, down to which classes they’re taking, where they’re interning, so we help the student with every aspect of their educational journey and career."
One of the major focuses of KEF is showing students how to translate their "informal skills" onto applications. Many first-generation students have family obligations or financial restrictions that prevent them from participating in organized activities, but they have valuable experience in other areas.
"One of the things that our students spend a lot of time doing is helping their family members navigate the very complex health care system in America. We encourage students to take these experiences and ask, what did you learn from them? What are all of the skills that you have as a result of these experiences?
And it’s the same thing with jobs. We have students who aren’t active on campus but are working as managers at a fast food restaurant. There’s a lot of skills that are learned there: you’re dealing with lots of different personalities, managing people, managing shifts. We’re very intentional about making sure that we’re helping colleges view students from an asset perspective and not a deficit perspective."
And this approach works. KEF scholars consistantly gain admission to top-tier schools; in 2023, participants in the program attended colleges including Cornell, Princeton, Yale, Brown, and Rice University, which have some of the lowest acceptance rates in the country. 92% of Kaplan scholars go on to earn a Bachelor's degree. Given that Kaplan scholars are mostly first-generation college students without many advantages in the education process, this is truly remarkable.
Courtesy of Kaplan Educational Foundation
Improving the Education System
The overturning of affirmative action in the Supreme Court has brought discussions of education inequity to the forefront. Although its nullification is a setback for under-resourced students, Nolvia is optimistic about the future of equity in education. "I do think that by overturning affirmative action schools will have to really think about how to increase diversity on campus and commit to diversity on campus in a way that they haven’t before. I’m hopeful that schools will figure it out, be creative, and really invest the time, money, and energy that’s necessary to diversify their student populations."
Some of the ways that Nolvia believes the education system can be improved are by providing college information to students in all locations, viewing students holistically (taking into account more than just their grades/academic activities), and providing students with support once they do get into universities. Even without affirmative action, these changes could create a more equitable system for all.
Overall, Nolvia encourages all teens, in the college application process and in life in general, to follow their aspirations. "Everything else will fall into place if you just show up, try your best, and take advantage of all the opportunities that you’re offered. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming, but just continue to show up and pursue your dreams."