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Organizations that help students get to college

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

Philadelphia has several organizations that work with students 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. Not all are available in all schools.

Philadelphia Futures

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


  • Sponsor-a-Scholar

Who can apply? Any 8th and 9th 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 fourth 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 and scores at least in the 90th percentile on state tests; if the student has taken college admission tests, a score of 900 or better combined on the critical 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, support throughout college. “Our whole big thing is to help students find the right fit socially, academically, and financially,” for college, said Philadelphia Futures director Joan Mazzotti. “We are looking 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.”

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 in low-income, single-parent homes. 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, when it started as SummerBridge at Germantown Friends School. It is expanding this year to include students from all over the city.


Who can apply? Any 6th grader in a Philadelphia District, charter, independent or parochial school. Current Breakthrough students are 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 is “planning on casting our net further. … We do not rule out any middle school students in Philadelphia.” Students can reach out directly; 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 the organization’s mission is to “work with people from underserved populations.”

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. The students also form a community with like-minded students who are excited about learning and have access to college-student mentors and academic coaches. The program stays with the student through college admission and is launching a new component to help throughout college as well.

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.

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 four Philadelphia high schools where the program is located: George Washington, Murrell Dobbins CTE, Parkway Center City, and West Philadelphia.

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, support while in college.

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