The Power of Potential

The 1967 Declaration: The Brother in the World Today laid out several powerful themes regarding the Lasallian mission, vision and values, among which were the following:

  • The Brothers live in the world and are necessarily sensitive to the Signs of the Times.  
  • The Brother places his total educational apostolate at the service of those whose poverty hinders their development as persons.  
  • Programs must be frequently examined to see that they correspond to real needs … Persons must be the center of educational systems rather than the prestige of some curriculum.

It was against this backdrop that a year later the Saint Mary’s College faculty overwhelmingly voted “to waive some or all of the usual entrance requirements” for students who did not demonstrate their potential for collegiate success through the traditional indicators (e.g., high school grades, SAT scores) due to socioeconomic and other factors beyond their control.

At the time, the civil rights movement was in full flourish, and high national priorities included increasing opportunities for young people from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Today, many Americans, including a Supreme Court majority, seemingly prefer to ignore signs that, despite real progress, much more needs to be done before all people have access to the improved quality of life a college education affords.

Saint Mary’s, like most U.S. Catholic colleges, was founded to serve Catholic immigrant youth who were frequently excluded, or simply could not afford to go beyond high school. Italians, Irish (the Gaels!), and others turned to campuses like Saint Mary’s for education long before the nation’s equality movements of the ’60s.

Ray White, then the director of financial aid, gave me a copy of the Declaration shortly after I began my career as a 22-year-old assistant dean of students for special programs. The book not only became the foundation upon which the High Potential Program was built, it also foretold that while the nation might someday turn away from the challenge to provide increased access, Saint Mary’s Lasallian commitment ran much deeper and would persist much longer.

The “signs of the times” are clear. The percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees has increased from 31 percent to 45 percent in the past 30 years. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon concludes, “No matter how bright, low-income students are increasingly unlikely to make it through college. What we’re talking about is a threat to the American Dream….”

Since 1988, racial gaps in SAT scores have widened, and there is no compelling evidence that improvement is near. Most black, Latino and low-income students still attend high schools without the teachers, curricula or resources necessary to prepare them for admission to college.

“Minority education” is not a minority issue; it’s an American issue. Hence, a McKinsey Company study concluded that if the achievement gap between black and Latino students and white students narrowed, U.S. GDP would be several hundreds of billions of dollars higher.

In pursuit of rankings, too many colleges today measure excellence by the number of students they exclude. Saint Mary’s continues to understand that genuine excellence is measured, not by what others think about the College—i.e., “the prestige of some curriculum”—but by what happens to students as a result of their having been enrolled.

In their 2002 book, Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras observe, “The essence of a visionary organization comes in the translation of its core ideology into the very fabric of the organization—into policies, practices, behaviors…into everything the organization does.” St. John Baptist de La Salle encouraged Lasallian educators “…to touch the hearts of your students and inspire them with the Christian spirit, since this is the purpose of your work.” By any measure, the 40th anniversary of the High Potential Program demonstrates the College’s abiding commitment to a mission and vision more than three centuries old.

- Tom Brown, Higher Education Consultant

Brown served as a dean from 1971 to 1998 and implemented the High Potential Program in 1973.

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