By Felicia Lee
If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard that the kids are not okay – the aftershocks from COVID shutdowns, teacher and other staff shortages, and funding cutbacks have made school a depressing slog, especially for kids from marginalized communities. Even pre-COVID, too many of them fell behind and never caught up, and even worse, saw no point in doing so. This is not only a personal tragedy for them, but a huge waste of human potential for the rest of us.
Rick Dalton, founder and CEO of the nonprofit CFES Brilliant Pathways, is determined to change this. Originally named College for Every Student, CFES is dedicated to inspiring underserved youth to take charge of their own education and career paths through mentoring, peer counseling, job shadowing, and other initiatives.
Rick first approached me in 2020 for editing help with his upcoming book, “Rural America’s Pathways to College and Career: Steps for Student Success and School Improvement.” Since then, we’ve collaborated regularly on projects including opinion pieces, grant proposals, and stakeholder communications. Last week, I caught up with him to get his thoughts on his mission and future plans.
Could you tell me you know what inspired you to start CFES?
Probably several things in my life that clicked. But the most recent one was at Middlebury, where I was the director of enrollment planning. And my focus was on diversity. I finished my doctorate and the president and I had a conversation, and basically he said, “how do we, Middlebury, become the top NESCAC [our conference] school?” And that’s a fairly competitive group because it’s Williams, Amherst, Wesleyan, that group of schools. And I said, “You know, the one thing we’re missing is diversity. We have too, too many upper-middle class white kids. A great place, but there’s a lot of vanilla going on.”
And he gave me the opportunity to sort of take on the leadership of that initiative across the college. And it just changed my life. I saw the impact of these young people on the institution. We set up a partnership with a high school at the Bronx, DeWitt Clinton High School, and it was so successful for Middlebury students and faculty as well as the young people from Clinton that ended up coming to Middlebury and those who didn’t come, but were lifted up by just the exposure. And that led to literally dozens of other colleges setting up partnerships with urban schools.
And at that point, I decided—this was two and a half years into the initiative—that I wanted to do this work full time. I realized that the students that went to Middlebury, most of them were going to be fine. But that there were thousands and thousands of others that needed support. So I got involved in a research project that led to the formation of CFES. And that was 32 years ago.
So what are some common misconceptions about college readiness and learning in general, and barriers to entry to college for people from disadvantaged backgrounds?
There’s probably more misconceptions about going to college today than at any point, I would argue, than in the last half century. More kids in high school today–and their parents are part of this–are thinking they don’t need to go to college. There’s a whole lot of pushback in our country about college. And I think that frankly, colleges brought some of this upon themselves with the cost of college. And you certainly see it in Florida. It’s happening across this country. So, the misperception is that you don’t need college. And I think that that every student that is going to have financial success and opportunity after high school, has to think about college. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year college, it could be a professional certificate. But post-secondary learning is more important today in our rapidly changing world than ever before. And just to understand what’s happening and where the jobs are, college should be a part of every young person’s portfolio, especially those kids who are in poverty situation. And the ticket out of poverty today, is what it was 10 years ago. 20 years ago, 30 years ago: college.
And there are so many, especially young men today, who are thinking, “I want to start my own business. I want to be an entrepreneur like Bill Gates.” But if you’re to be Bill Gates, what young people need to understand is how to manage their finances, how to manage the business. And post-secondary education can help them. So you’re asking the right question; we’re just flooded with misconceptions about higher education. But again, the most dangerous misconception is that you don’t need it.
You touched on something about young men saying, “oh, I’m just going to go and start my own business.” And this has led to a gap in college-going and academic performance between male and female students, which is kind of surprising. Can you discuss some of the reasons for this?
Yeah. This has been my focus, and I’ve worked with universities where 33% of the students are male. It’s a challenge that exists throughout our country, and really throughout the western world. And the reasons for this are everything from developmental—young men develop more slowly the young women, yet we have a one-size-fits-all educational system, and a system that really is designed for compliant students that get in line when you tell them recess is ready to start, when we’re heading to lunch, when they’re supposed to sit quietly at their desk—and young men are just not designed for that kind of activity. Then there are dozens of other reasons. If you look at who the teachers are in the K-12 space, it’s primarily females, and one percent of the teachers in K-12 are males of color. And we wonder, what’s happening with our young men of color.
There are some strategies at the University of Vermont we have developed—you were part of editing this; we’re going to announce [them] this next month. A national competition, where high school students share a plan for becoming an entrepreneur. We expect that there will be literally hundreds and thousands of high school students that apply, and the top ten selected will be selected by college students at the university. They will receive money, even at the top a full scholarship to the University of Vermont. So we’re looking to create some sort of pathway for becoming an entrepreneur and helping young people not just to want to become an entrepreneur because they want to work for themselves and make a lot of money, but to ask themselves “how do you do it? What are the steps that you need to take?” So that’s part of what the University of Vermont is looking to do. And we know that this appeals more to young men.
But I want to stress that all of this is to say it’s not a zero-sum game. Whenever we lift up young men, we have an opportunity to continue lifting up young women as well. And that’s essentially important. Absolutely critical.
You’ve been writing a lot of editorials and white papers and other things to get buy-in for CFES and your programs and methods. So how does this help your efforts?
We as an organization, the thing that’s key for us to be on the cutting edge. This is the rapidity of change today is greater than any time in the history of the United States. So the changes that are taking place in education, and it’s everything from teacher shortages, gaps between males and females, high-income kids, low-income kids. how schools are responding to the 21st century, their challenges and changes. And we think as an organization, it’s critical for us to help educators and families and students know what’s happening and how to respond to the changes that have happened and are happening in the educational space. And you’ve been wonderful in terms of helping me deliver helping CFES deliver those messages.
You’re a researcher and writer yourself. You’ve written a dissertation, you’ve written a book, so you have a lot of writing experience. So why did you decide to seek out my help?
You know, one of the things that I need is another set of eyes. How do we tell the story in the best possible way? And you have been invaluable in helping me tell the story and the stories that are that have been part of our education, stories that could help students as they look to take the next step, as they look to change really their trajectories. So thank you for that.
Finally, what’s next for you and CFES?
Wow—we have many things going on. You’ve helped us write about college and career readiness advisor training, and we continue to put tremendous effort and focus on really ensuring that that everyone in the village can lift up our students and help them move down that pathway to careers and higher education. So that’s absolutely key.
Another pair of initiatives that is important to watch is the Young Men of Talent initiative that we’re kicking off at the University of Vermont. And we’re going to identify 100 young men who are Black and Latino. They will enroll with the University of Vermont, we’re going to make sure that of the 100, 100 graduate. We’ve got an initiative that will help these young men become part of career clusters. They will have a mentor in education, or health care, or entrepreneurship, or pick an area where there’s a job or career interest. And that young person in the group of 100 young men of talent will have a mentor who can help them understand what it takes to be successful in their particular career focus. And that means everything from the summer internships to opportunities throughout the year to hear what’s going on and what’s cutting edge in a particular profession, what’s changing in a profession.
In addition, the president and the provost at the University of Vermont have agreed to break bread with these 100 students on a regular basis throughout the year. So we’re going to have the full commitment and buy-in of the people who lead the university. So that obviously that’s going to help.
And if they have particular needs or difficulties, the people who are most able to respond, will respond. We’re going to be very careful in terms of who the academic advisors for our students are. They will have special advisers who meet with them on a weekly basis, and that means if they need tutoring, if they want to get involved in research, they’ll have someone there to help them. And finally, there will be peers, upper-classmen peers, juniors and seniors who are also Black and Latino, who can guide these students by being there for them 24/7. if an emergency comes, we’re going to be able to support them and give them the help that they need, whether it’s housing, whether it’s academic, whether it’s food insecurity, this program is going to respond. And we should have the University of Vermont becoming really a national model, so we can take this to other colleges and universities across our country and begin to close the gap in terms of who’s successful and who’s not.