Education Funders Are Throwing Weight Behind This Small Nonprofit’s Equity Work. Here’s Why

Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not. 

It’s the National Education Equity Lab’s tagline; it’s also the reality that animates Leslie Cornfeld, the organization’s founder and CEO. The Equity Lab is working to spread opportunity more widely by giving underprivileged students a taste of the college experience in high school. The goal is not just to show high schoolers that they can exceed their own expectations, but to demonstrate to elite colleges that talent exists far from the privileged zip codes where so many of their students come up. 

Since Cornfeld launched the Equity Lab three years ago, she and her small staff have not

just multiplied the number of student participants; they’ve assembled a top-flight advisory board, a growing list of participating colleges and universities (including Howard, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford, Wharton, Georgetown, Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, Wesleyan, Barnard, and University of California), and the support of major education funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, as well as hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones’s Tudor Foundation

Now, some lesser-known philanthropists are stepping up, as well. The Equity Lab recently announced gifts from three family foundations: $1.5 million from the McCance Family Foundation, $1.1 million from the Leonard Hill Charitable Trust, and an additional $1 million from an anonymous donor through a donor-advised fund. 

College in high school 

Leslie Cornfeld, a former federal civil rights prosecutor and advisor to Arne Duncan, secretary of education in the Obama administration, says those roles opened her eyes to a reality she can’t unsee: “It became clear to me that the greatest civil rights issue of our generation is education and education equity,” she said. “When I traveled across the country to areas where most of the kids qualified for free and reduced lunch, I saw over and over how articulate the students were, and how much talent they possessed. But when I would talk to them about college, few of them had the confidence that they could succeed in college.” 

College wasn’t on the radar for many of the students she met. Others were looking only at local colleges, because no one had ever encouraged them to consider other options. 

Although diversity at the most competitive U.S. colleges is thought to have ticked up this year, students of color make up only a small percentage of enrollment at most elite schools, and education writer Paul Tough has demonstrated the many ways that colleges overlook 

low-income students in favor of those who can pay. Still, Cornfeld believes that colleges and universities genuinely want to make their campuses more diverse, but aren’t sure how to identify less-privileged students who can succeed in a rigorous academic environment. 

That’s where the Equity Lab comes in. Cornfeld and her team have arranged for high school students in Flint, Michigan, the South Bronx, rural New Mexico and other low-income areas of the country to take college-level classes at some of the nation’s top educational institutions. The Equity Lab works closely with students, as well as high school teachers and college professors, providing support throughout the process. “We’re helping the colleges lean into the high school space, and helping them identify the vast talent that exists in

predominantly Black and brown communities,” Cornfeld said. 

The Equity Lab’s early success rate is high. To date, 86% of participating students passed their college-level courses and earned college credit, and all of the school districts that participated want to continue. 

“We’re still in the early stages of this work, but we’re excited about the results so far,” Cornfeld said. “When we talk to the teachers, they say they see heightened levels of confidence among our scholars about their ability to succeed and in their aspiration to attend more selective education institutions.” 

Funding like a VC 

Henry McCance worked in venture capital for 40 years at Greylock Partners, where he is now chairman emeritus, and he brings that experience to his philanthropic work. McCance created the McCance Family Foundation, where he is now a trustee, along with his two daughters and a son-in-law. The foundation’s priorities include leveling the economic playing field—primarily through education—climate change, and medical research. (Be sure to check out IP’s recent rundown of philanthropic giving from McCance and other top VC investors.) 

One of McCance’s daughters is particularly interested in education equity and she was the one who flagged a recent New York Times article highlighting the Equity Lab’s work. McCance read the article and was intrigued; he conducted some research to learn more about the project, in much the way he would check out a startup when he worked as a venture capitalist. 

McCance had a Zoom call with Cornfeld and liked what he heard. He was impressed by the talent on her advisory board (which includes Arne Duncan, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, and other education experts) and by how much Cornfeld is able to accomplish with a small staff. 

McCance was also excited by the Equity Lab’s ability to scale. “That is one of the challenges facing most nonprofits: Scaling is very hard,” he said. “You need a lot of money, in most cases, to scale, but that isn’t true in this case. It doesn’t cost the universities to put their courseware online, and the cost to the high schools is also low.” He points out that the Equity Lab is scaling 

quickly—3,000 students have participated to date, and the goal is to be in 30 states and over 100 school districts, with more than 10,000 participating students, by 2022. 

As a funder, McCance likes to offer advice and make connections when he can. “I’ve tried

to pass this on to my daughters: Writing a check is helpful, but writing a check and offering some intellectual capital is what is rewarding. It’s fun.” McCance helped connect Cornfeld with administrators in the Florida school district near his home; students there will be taking college courses through the Equity Lab next fall. He also introduced Cornfeld to Sal Khan of Khan Academy, another McCance grantee, and the two are now discussing how their organizations can work together. 

The McCance Family Foundation doesn’t have a website, which is a deliberate choice, because the family doesn’t want to receive proposals. “We like to proactively identify the projects we fund in much the way venture capital firms do,” McCance said. “Most people think that VC firms respond to proposals that come over the computer, and that’s not the case. The partners in most VC firms spend their time networking and identifying entrepreneurs in the industries they want to back.” 

For McCance and other funders, students like Melanie Lantigua seem like a smart investment. Lantigua, a student from the South Bronx, took the course Big Data for Big Policy Problems at Cornell, and was accepted by the university this past spring. At the closing ceremony for the Big Data course, Lantigua said, “I am a first-generation college student from the South Bronx, one of the most underserved communities in the country. It is only because of opportunities like this that students can have the experiences, training and hope to allow us to be all that we can be. And we can be a lot!”


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