Frank Bruni Looks at USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative!

Dear Commons Community,

In his New York Times column today, Frank Bruni, writes about USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (N.A.I.) which has been the vehicle to a higher education for more than 900 students.  Here is an excerpt:

“If you go by the odds, Sierra Williams shouldn’t be in college, let alone at a highly selective school like the University of Southern California.

Many kids in her low-income neighborhood here don’t get to or through the 12th grade. Her single mother isn’t college-educated. Neither are Sierra’s two brothers, one of whom is in prison. Her sister has only a two-year associate degree.

But when Sierra was in the sixth grade, teachers spotted her potential and enrolled her in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, or N.A.I., a program through which U.S.C. prepares underprivileged kids who live relatively near its South Los Angeles campus for higher education. She repeatedly visited U.S.C., so she could envision herself in such an environment and reach for it. She took advanced classes. Her mother, like the parents or guardians of all students in the N.A.I., got counseling on turning college into a reality for her child.

Sierra, 20, just finished her junior year at U.S.C. An engineering major, she’s already enrolled in a master’s program. “My end goal is to get my Ph.D.,” she told me when I met her recently. She wants to be a professor and, through her example as a black woman in engineering, correct the paucity of minorities in the field.

It’s now some two decades since the first class of seniors in the N.A.I. graduated from high school and went on to college. More than 900 kids have used the N.A.I. as an on ramp to higher education — more than a third of them ended up at U.S.C. — and that number is growing quickly as the N.A.I. expands.

The public school that many N.A.I. enrollees attend, the Foshay Learning Center, was responsible for more new arrivals on the U.S.C. campus last fall than any other public or private high school in America. Nineteen N.A.I. alumni started as freshmen; 11 more transferred from other colleges.

And N.A.I. doesn’t even represent the whole of U.S.C.’s efforts to address inadequate socioeconomic diversity at the country’s most celebrated colleges. Although U.S.C. has often been caricatured as a rich kids’ playground — its nickname in some quarters is the University of Spoiled Children — it outpaces most of its peers in trying to lift disadvantaged kids to better lives. Those peers should learn from its example.

According to a recently published study whose data was just a few years old, 38 of America’s top colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from families in the top 1 percent of income earners (about $630,000 annually and above) than from those in the bottom 60 percent ($65,000 and below). There are many reasons, principally a failure to identify and recruit disadvantaged kids whose abilities and accomplishments make them perfectly eligible for elite colleges with low acceptance rates. (U.S.C.’s is now about 16.5 percent.)”

Bruni comments that N.A.I.  is the type of program that should be emulated at other selective colleges and universities. I agree!


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