According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, community colleges in the United States currently enroll nearly 9 million students, a disproportionate number of them low-income and people of color. Nolvia Delgado of the Kaplan Educational Foundation believes that figuring out how to support and advance these students should be a matter of national urgency. Delgado should know – she once was one herself.
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, Delgado began her college career at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. With the help of the Kaplan Educational Foundation, which helps underrepresented community college students transfer to selective universities, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College. Now, more than a decade later, she finds herself responsible for leading the program that helped her as an undergraduate.
Greg Berman of New York Nonprofit Media talked to Delgado about her trajectory and the unique challenges of running an organization after having previously been a program participant.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Berman: As you know better than most people, there are millions of students at community colleges. I've seen estimates that something like one third of all college students are actually enrolled at community colleges. I haven’t done a formal analysis, but I can guarantee you that the New York Times does not devote one third of their educational coverage to community colleges. So I guess I wanted to start by hearing a little bit about your experience at BMCC and how that shaped you.
Delgado: I ended up at BMCC almost by mistake. At the end of high school, I was applying to all four-year schools because I was an honors student. And I remember my college advisor saying to put BMCC on my list “just in case.” And it turned out that's where I ended up. I think it was a blessing in disguise for me. I was working two jobs while I was in school. What BMCC did really well is that they advertised all of the opportunities that students were eligible for. They really went out of their way to make things accessible. I applied to the Kaplan Educational Foundation and a few other programs. BMCC had advisers who were able to help me with each of those applications. No one really knew me – I wasn’t active on campus because I was working full-time. But they still were right there cheering me on and making sure that I was putting together the strongest applications possible.
Berman: So with the help of Kaplan, you transferred from BMCC to Smith. Walk me through what that transition was like.
Delgado: It was extremely challenging. One of the things that KEF does really well is to work with students before they transfer. This includes everything from working on your essays to prepping for interviews to staying on top of all of the moving pieces. It is a lot to navigate. But the challenges don’t end there. Once you transfer, you can find yourself in a completely different environment than what you are used to. Smith was great, but it was very different from New York. It was academically, socially, and emotionally challenging. Without the support of KEF, I don't know that I would've graduated.
Berman: Give me a more granular sense of how the program helped you. What in particular do you think made a difference?
Delgado: I remember calling my academic advisor at KEF when I was at Smith. There had been a death in my family. There was just a lot going on and I felt like I needed to be back in New York with my family. And what she told me was, “You're not only doing this for yourself, you're also doing this for your family and for everyone who comes after you.” And she called me every day just to make sure that I was okay and that I was going to my classes. KEF made sure that I had the resources I needed to be able to stay on campus and complete the semester. It's almost like having your own cheerleader who's reminding you that you belong and supporting you along the way with any barriers that come up. Kaplan tries to equip its scholars with the tools that they need in order to navigate this different environment where there aren't a lot of people who look like us and who have the same experiences we have.
Berman: When you graduated from Smith, did you know that you wanted to do public interest work?
Delgado: When I graduated from Smith, I had two job offers. One was working in politics and the other was working for KEF. For a long time, I thought I was going to go into politics and run for office. And then at Smith, I took a bunch of classes about educational equity and systemic racism. There was a shift for me where I started to think about the power of education as it related to my life. So ultimately I decided to go work for KEF. My first job out of college was working for KEF.
Berman: And now you find yourself running the organization. I think in the years to come we are going to see more people graduate from program participants to leadership roles within nonprofit organizations. I’m wondering how you navigate being both the leader and the living embodiment of the organization you represent. I would imagine that just adds extra pressure.
Delgado: I think there is more pressure, but that pressure comes from me because the program meant so much to me and I know first-hand the impact that it had. So it’s personal for me. I try to put my scholar hat on first before I put on my ED hat. I think about what were the things that I wish I had when I was a scholar. When I approach the work that way, I think it makes me sleep better at night because I know that ultimately the students come first and I'm doing everything in their best interests.
Berman: How many Kaplan scholars are there each year, and do you have a sense of what the cost per scholar is?
Delgado: Right now, we have 11 scholars that are at community college, and 40 to 45 that are at four-year schools. And then we have another 15 alums that we're also working with. The cost per scholar is roughly $10,000 a year while they're in the program.
Berman: KEF has the benefit of an endowment. I'm always curious when I come across organizations with endowments about how that affects the culture of the agency. Of course many nonprofit directors fantasize about having an endowment, but I wonder whether it is also a challenge to create an entrepreneurial culture when you know that you have the backstop of an endowment to bail you out if you have an unsuccessful fundraising year.
Delgado: Our endowment only covers a percentage of our operating costs. I'm working on strengthening our fundraising efforts so that we don't have to tap into the endowment.
Berman: What are your other ambitions for KEF? It would seem like there are potentially thousands of students who could benefit from your model. Delgado: If I had a magic wand, I would love for this to be a national program at every community college. I think the work that we do is so unique. I haven't met another organization that is supporting students from community college to four-year schools and then through graduation and even helping them launch their careers. Especially for Black and Latinx students, that level of support just doesn't exist. I think every student who meets the criteria should have the support to make it to and through community college.
Berman: Right now it seems like you are mostly sending your scholars to colleges like Smith and Amherst. Can you imagine linking participants to less selective universities?
Delgado: Yes. What we look for are schools that are transfer-friendly and that are going to have the resources to support our students. As long as schools are able to do those things, then we'll definitely consider them a transfer partner.
Berman: I became the executive director of the Center for Justice Innovation when I was 34 years old. That meant having to supervise people who were older than I was and work with funders and stakeholders who were more experienced than me. You have also been thrust into a leadership position at a relatively young age. What has the experience been like for you?
Delgado: I've found myself in this predicament throughout my life. I've always been the youngest person in the room. Something that I've found particularly beneficial is building my own personal board of directors. Having other executive directors who I can turn to and ask for advice has really helped me. I believe that there's something to learn from everyone, whether that person is older or younger. And I think when you treat people with respect and you're transparent about the decisions that you're making, it makes the process a lot easier. I'm also an old soul, so I feel like that makes things easier as well.
Berman: I'm curious if you have a perspective on the current move a lot of universities are making to eliminate testing requirements for applicants. Some people have argued that this is misguided and that the SAT and the ACT really allow colleges to identify the potential of students that don’t do well in high school classes.
Delgado: I've seen the opposite happen, where students who are just not good test takers or who don't have the resources to enroll in a test prep class really suffer because of the test requirement. Even though test prep has become more accessible, I still think that it's not reaching all of the students that need it. When I applied to Smith over 10 years ago, it was test optional. They really looked at the applicants holistically. I think that when schools adopt this model and eliminate the test requirement, then students who otherwise wouldn't have had a chance at getting in, will have a better chance of being accepted.