ESSEX - A national organization that works to send low-income students to college hopes to expand its presence in the North Country.
College for Every Student, a nonprofit group founded in 1991, has helped more than 75,000 "underserved" students from both urban and rural areas attend college. Once based in Vermont, it is now headquartered in northern New York and works closely with academic institutions across the region, including Paul Smith's College and North Country Community College.
In recent years, some have questioned the need for all high school students to strive for a college education, especially as college costs continue to rise and as many recent graduates struggle to find work and pay for student loans.
Staff from College for Every Student pose outside the organization’s new office in Essex. From left are Sarah Dalton, program director; Kim Calhoun, program coordinator; Emily Lewis, director of persistence; Rick Dalton, president and CEO; Karen Judge, director of development; Tara Smith, vice president of programs; and Aubrey Bresett, communications director.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Work crews renovate the downstairs of College for Every Student’s new headquarters in Essex. When finished, this space will host conferences on college access and other issues pertaining to higher education.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Rick Dalton, CEO of CFES, told the Enterprise recently that his organization rejects the notion that college isn't for everyone.
"For folks to say that young people don't need college, it makes me absolutely crazy," he said, "because what that has meant, what that has been code for, is that low-income kids shouldn't have opportunity. Everyone needs to be thinking about college. Everyone in this country needs to be college ready because there is the need for ongoing learning."
Dalton said most politicians agree that the U.S. needs to strengthen its middle class. He said he thinks the middle class is about to become extinct and that higher education can play a role in staving that off.
"What we have, and what we're growing toward in this country, is a huge gap and a division between the very wealthy and the poor," Dalton said. "It used to be that education was the route to the middle class and social mobility. And I think that that is really threatened because you have this widening gap between our poor kids and our rich kids.
"That just threatens the fabric of our democracy and, I think, the future of this country. That's why we do the work that we do."
A simple mission
Dalton said CFES's goal is straightforward.
"We help underserved students get to college and through college," he said. "I would argue that that is the greatest domestic need in our country."
Dalton stressed that his organization works to fit students with the right academic institutions. For some, that means private colleges like St. Lawrence University, Dartmouth and Middlebury, while for others it could mean state universities or community colleges.
"We're talking about any sort of post-secondary schooling or education," Dalton said.
Dalton said that as technology continues to change at ever-increasing speeds, the need for college increases.
"If you're working as a mechanic, a plumber, printing, graphics - you're going to need training because the technology is changing," he said. "The changes that are taking place in our country in terms of jobs, technology, the economy - our society at every level - are so great, that we all need to be learners or we're all going to be left behind.
"What we don't want is this group of young people to be left behind."
CFES helps high school students understand things like financial aid and scholarships so they can find ways to finance their college education. The organization works with approximately 20,000 students at 200 schools in 24 states.
Each school can select a CFES scholar, Dalton explained. Most end up becoming first-generation college students.
"These are young people who need some extra support in moving through that process toward college," Dalton said. "There isn't a college culture in many of the homes where our young people are from."
Once a scholar is selected, they participate in three practices, Dalton said: mentoring, leadership through service and pathways to college. Mentors, he said, help the scholars understand the college process. In many cases, the mentor supplements the services a guidance counselor provides.
Leadership through service, Dalton said, means that scholars help their schools and communities by performing at least two service projects every year.
"That third practice is pathways to college; that is the college knowledge and financial aid knowledge," he said. "All of our scholars get on at least one college campus a year where they have interaction with college students, professors and other college staff, and they begin to understand the culture of college."
Dalton said he doesn't foresee the trend of rising college costs changing anytime soon.
"That is one of the big issues that will emerge in the next few years, is taking on college costs," he said. "It's been health care. It was the insurance industry; it was the banks."
Dalton noted that both President Barack Obama and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio targeted the high price of college in their competing State of the Union addresses.
"And there was really a veiled threat in what they said: If colleges don't figure it out, we're going to step in," Dalton said. "The federal government is spending $160 billion in loans and tax breaks and other support of higher education. We need to pay attention to costs. Some colleges have been kind of getting away with double-digit increases every three years. It's just out of line."
Dalton praised colleges in the North Country for keeping tuition in check relative to other parts of the state and the country. He said CFES actively works with students to make sure they select a college or university they can afford.
Up until a year-and-a-half ago, CFES was based in Middlebury, Vt. At about that time, Dalton and his wife, Karen, bought the Essex Inn, located on Main Street in the picturesque town of Essex. Not long after, they purchased the building next-door, which is now the national headquarters for CFES.
A large space in the back of the building's main floor, which is currently under renovation, will become the CFES Center, a space that Dalton said will host "six major convenings on key college access and persistence issues.
"We will also do, every week, a virtual broadcast, and that will be around the country, and in many cases we'll bring in educators and students from the North Country to be part of that discussion," Dalton said. "This is the national center for college access and persistence, and we're really, really excited to be here.
"We plan to gather from around the country, but we're centered in the North Country, and that's very important to us. We want to serve the North Country educators and students, and we plan to grow our program from nine to, next year, 20 schools and triple the number of students we serve in the North Country."
CFES's main offices are located on the building's second floor and are home to about 10 employees. About 20 more are located across the country in places like Hawaii, Florida, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The organization also leases space on the Main Street side of the first floor to the local post office. CFES hopes to lease a second storefront space, currently vacant, in the near future.
"Rent from those spaces will cover the cost of this building," Dalton said.
CFES receives financial support from a variety of sources, including major corporations like GE, Colgate, Palmolive and Met Life. Some money comes from foundations, some from individual donors, and a small amount comes from the federal government.
"Of the dollars we raise, 95 percent of the money goes right back into programs," Dalton said. "So we have very, very low overhead."
The new headquarters cost about $1.5 million, Dalton said.
"We're going to raise every dollar so that nothing comes out of programs," he said. "That will be money we raise from individuals and corporations."
The organization is overseen by a 12-person Board of Directors, which includes former Kansas City Chief General Manager Scott Pioli, Ernst and Young Chief Operating Officer Gary Belske and Boston University Athletic Director Michael Lynch.
The board is chaired by Ernie Stretton, former superintendent of the Lake Placid Central School District.
"We have a very strong North Country presence," Dalton said.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.