Organizations that help students get to college

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Several organizations in Philadelphia work with students for free to help them get the most from their high school education and to prepare them for college. Students must seek out these opportunities and go through an application process. Some of the programs are only available at certain schools.

Philadelphia Education Fund

In 1995 two existing non-profits—Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching Humanities and Philadelphia Renaissance in Science and Mathematics—merged to form the Ed Fund, dedicated to building a culture of college-readiness among students and teachers through professional development and programs that help students realize their college and carreer goals. The Fund also offers scholarships through the College Access Program, but only to students at five District and charter schools. It offers further scholarships to students at another 20 school through Philadelphia Scholars. Philly Goes to College An online, interactive, tool that guides students through the process of selecting and applying to college, regularly hosts open workshops for prospective college students, and offers one-on-one financial aid workshops upon request. Who can apply? It offers resources and guidance starting at the middle school level, through the college application process.

What are the criteria? Any and all students interested in attending college can participate.

What are the benefits? Free online comrehensive guides for students at different age levels, detailing what is expected of them at that age if they hope to increase their chances of getting into college, and guides on the college application process itself. It also hosts open tours of local colleges and universities, information sessions for families, and one-on-one advice on the financial aid process upon request.

What must you do? Visit the website to get involved.

Philadelphia Futures

In operation since 1989, Futures is the largest and most established such organization in the city. It has several programs, but the two biggest are Sponsor-a-Scholar and College Connection.


Who can apply? Any 8th, 9th, or 10th graders in Philadelphia District schools who would be the first in their families to attend college and who meet income guidelines for free and reduced-price lunch (currently just under $45,000 for a family of four).

What are the criteria? Students must have good grades and behavior records and be recommended by a teacher or administrator in their school.

What are the benefits? A one-on-one mentor throughout high school and beyond, $6,000 for college-related expenses, SAT and ACT tutoring, college trips, individual counseling to pick the right college and to maximize financial aid while minimizing debt.

What must you do? Be available for afterschool and summer programs and maintain a focus on college.

College Connection

This program, now in its fifth year, started after Philadelphia Futures merged with White-Williams Scholars.

Who can apply? High school juniors and seniors in District, charter, independent, and parochial schools from families who meet the income guidelines and who would be first-generation college students.

What are the criteria? A grade point average of at least 3.3, rigorous academic courses in the 9th and 10th grades, and if the student has taken college admission tests, a score of 900 or better combined on the reading and math SAT or 19 on the ACT.

What are the benefits? Guidance in finding the right college, SAT and ACT prep, college trips, help with financial aid applications and college transitions, and support throughout college. Joan Mazzotti, longtime director of Philadelphia Futures before she stepped down earlier this year, said the program helped students find the right fit socially, academically, and financially for college. College Connection looks for students who are college-bound and college-ready, but won’t have the resources to go through the college admissions process and the guidance to get through college, she said.

What must you do? Attend the programs and maintain your focus on college.

Futures partners with eight Pennsylvania colleges that offer full-need financial aid: Penn State, Drexel, Haverford, Arcadia, Gettysburg, Franklin & Marshall, Lafayette, and Dickinson.

Charles Ellis Trust for Girls

Futures also administers this program, which offers financial resources for high school girls living in low-income Philadelphia homes where parents are absent or disabled. Prospective students must have Cs or higher in major academic subjects and be on track to graduate. If they attend parochial or independent schools, they get tuition assistance; in public schools, they get money for expenses such as uniforms and school supplies, as well as access to programming, including the Women in Natural Sciences program at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia

In operation in Philadelphia since 1995, the organization started as SummerBridge at Germantown Friends School. It has expanded to include students from all over the city.

Who can apply? Any 6th grader in a Philadelphia District, charter, independent or parochial school. Last year, Breakthrough students came from about 36 schools, most in West and Northwest Philadelphia, where the program has so far concentrated recruitment efforts. But executive director Robbin Washington-Smart says Breakthrough wants to cast its net widely. “We do not rule out any middle school students in Philadelphia.” Students can reach out directly and so can school personnel, “anybody who has access to 6th graders and wants to help them with options.” She specifically mentioned community organizations and places of worship.

What are the criteria? The application is comprehensive and involves both the student and the family. It is designed to “understand the student’s commitment to a future as a college graduate, their level of preparation, their personal mission, and where they stand at school.” Washington-Smart described it as a “partnership” with the student and family. An educator recommendation is also required. There is no income cutoff or requirement that the student be the first in his or her family to attend college, but those students are given preference.

What are the benefits? Breakthrough specifically helps middle schoolers find and apply to good city high schools, both District schools with admissions requirements and charter schools. Once the student is in high school, Breakthrough provides monthly meetings about grades, tutoring, and SAT preparation. The students also form a community with like-minded students who are excited about learning and gain access to college-student mentors and academic coaches.

What must you do? Attend a six-week summer program and Saturday programming during the year. Those are held at two locations: Drexel University in West Philadelphia and Germantown Friends School in Northwest Philadelphia. For the first time, this summer students took day trips to Swarthmore’s campus for courses on applying to college.

College Possible

In operation since 2014 in Philadelphia, this program started in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2000 and is now in six cities. AmeriCorps members, many of them first-generation college students themselves, coach low-income students, helping them navigate the college journey. Who can apply? Sophomores in the five Philadelphia high schools where the program is located: George Washington, Murrell Dobbins CTE, Parkway Center City, and West Philadelphia, and Jules E. Mastbaum CTE. What are the criteria? Philadelphia executive director Wyneshia Foxworth said the program is looking for students “in the academic middle” who are not likely to get the guidance they need to prepare for, apply to, and succeed in college. Like the other programs, it seeks motivated students who “see a future for themselves.”

What are the benefits? Individual mentoring and coaching from AmeriCorps members, SAT and ACT prep, college visits, and support while in college.

What must you do? Attend twice-weekly afterschool sessions, maintain good grades and behavior, and apply to college.

Young Scholars Program

Created in 2001 by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the selective program offers academic enrichment courses throughout high school, a personal college counselor, and opportunities to apply for internships and trips to study abroad. Who can apply? Students entering 8th grade with mostly As in core academic subjects whose household family income is below $95,000 a year.

What are the criteria? Applying students must have one English and one math teacher write them a recommendation for the program. The application is an online process requiring students to submit report cards, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and an essay.

What are the benefits? Students are mentored by a college and academic counselor and meet with the counselor individually. Supports for each student are tailored to his or her needs and interests. They will probably participate in academic enrichment programs in the summer and on weekends and receive a computer if needed, and they can apply for internships and study abroad trips through the program. Nearly two-thirds of participating students have studied abroad, and one-third have participated in internships.

College Prep at the Free Library

The Free Library of Philadelphia offers an online tool that walks students through selecting a college, applying, filling out the federal financial aid form (FAFSA), and taking admissions tests like the SAT and ACT. Each step provides online resources, including the Common App, search engines for state universities, virtual tours, guides to completing applications, guides for the FAFSA, an extensive list of local scholarships and much more. The program has also periodically offered free SAT and ACT prep classes and sessions for filling out applications and FAFSAs at library branches around the city.