Getting First-Generation Kids to and Through College with Elissa Salas

Show Notes

On this episode of Grow Kinder, we talk with Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track, a comprehensive college completion program that helps students from underserved communities graduate. As a first-generation college graduate herself, Elissa has dedicated her career to improving educational outcomes for students of color from low-income communities.


Elissa talks with us about the experiences of first-generation college students, the importance of mentorship, and how social-emotional skills play a large role in a student’s college success.




[00:00:02] ANNOUNCER: The Grow Kinder Podcast features conversations with thought leaders in education, business, tech and the arts who all share one thing in common; a dedication to growing kinder in their work and lives and helping others do the same. Brought to you by Committee For Children.

Today, we talk with Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track, a comprehensive college completion program that helps students from underserved communities graduate. As a first-generation college graduate herself, Elissa has dedicated her career to improving educational outcomes for students of color from low-income communities. Elissa talks with us about the experiences of first-generation college students, the importance of mentorship, and how social-emotional skills play a large role in a student's college success.


[00:00:55] MD: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Grow Kinder Podcast. I’m Mia Doces.

[00:00:59] AL: And I’m Andrea Lovanhill.

[00:01:01] MD: We’re really happy to be talking to Elissa Salas today, who is the CEO of College Track, which is a comprehensive college completion program, helping students from underserved communities graduate from college.

So, Andrea, tell me a little bit about college for you.

[00:01:18] AL: Oh, my goodness! College. I mean, was it a sort of a expectation that you would go to college always in your family?

[00:01:24] MD: Definitely. Definitely, it was one of those tracks of like, “Go to kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school, college.”

[00:01:31] AL: It’s going to happen. Yeah. That was also an expectation for me, especially because the women in my family were nurses. So they all had to pursue degrees to go into nursing. So a lot of people that I grew up with, they may have gone to college because it was a college town. So it was sort of there and there was access. But a lot of them really were kind of looking at other avenues, vocations, factory work, those kinds of things.

But for my family, it was expected that you would go and at least get a degree in something that you could do that was practical, that would make you money and support you. So there were federal grants and state grants and avenues for that. But there wasn’t really support for students at my high school. Really like I was very motivated and I got no support from counselors in preparing my admissions and materials or visiting colleges. That was really reserved for elite athletes.

[00:02:25] MD: Did you feel academically prepared?

[00:02:27] AL: I felt in high school that high school was very easy and could therefore in no way. So I did have the sneaking suspicion that I would not be prepared for college and I think that was true even in the college that I went to, which was in my hometown. I started in kind of a higher level English course and I just remember thinking that transition was really rough and that the expectations were so much higher than what they had been in high school.

Lots of my friends and people that I graduated with, they just flamed out in year one. They were done. They weren’t going to – A lot of them came back and pursued it later, which I think is to their credit and has resulted in really great things for their lives. But at the time, going in 18 years old with what we’ve been given in high school, we didn't – I don’t think many of us felt prepared.

[00:03:17] MD: That first year of college kicked my ass.

[00:03:19] AL: Actually, both socially and academically. I mean, it was okay. Socially, after the first semester, it was fine. But, I mean, it was way higher level than what I’ve been used to.

[00:03:28] MD: I ended up loving college though. I mean, I loved it once I got the hang of it. It was just so different.

[00:03:34] AL: Well, I love – If I could do anything, it would just be – If I were independently wealthy. I’d just get degrees. That’s my dream. I’d rather just go to school.

[00:03:42] MD: I thought that after I got my masters in Ed. Then I did the masters in counseling. Then I thought, “You know what would be really cool is if I got a law degree.” My son is now 25. He’s graduated from college and in six weeks is starting law school. However, I remember a particularly contentious evening when he was in high school and we’re having some crabby, crabby time, where he threw some kind of minor fit and said, “I don't even think I’m going to go to college.” I went, “Huh! How could you possibly say that? Things have gotten really serious right now.” How about you with your kids?

[00:04:23] AL: My five-year-old, we already talk about it. I don't know that I would’ve – I mean, I didn’t do that on purpose, but we talk about things that he enjoys and what he wants to do. Typical of this age, he’s interested in paleontology. He’s like, “I want to be a paleontologist.” I said, “Okay. Well, that's one of – When you want to be a scientist, you have to go to school for a long time.” So we talk about all the [inaudible 00:05:24]. How many years extra is it? We’ve counted up the total number of years it would take for him to get a degree in paleontology that would allow him to work. So he’s like, “Okay. I’ve got this many years until I’m a paleontologist.”

I think actually I'm sort of proud of myself after that. I was like, “Now, he won’t expect anything less like for him going to school for 20 years.” Twice of his life.

[00:05:10] MD: Five times the age he is now.

[00:05:12] AL: Right. It’s normal. That seems normal. Of course, that will probably wane later on. But do you think there is other modes of learning and experience that are important and where I can get him access to those things I want to do? There’s this other question that I think we’ll get into today around access and equitable access. I feel lucky that for the most part I've got a pathway for him to go to college and that I can help him with that. I think, financially, there's a lot of questions around how that will be supported, but we’re at least in a position to try to make that happen.

[00:05:51] MD: Hi. Welcome back, everybody, to our Grow Kinder Podcast. I’m Mia Doces.

[00:05:56] AL: I'm Andrea Lovanhill.

[00:05:57] MD: Today, we’re talking to Elissa Salas, who is the CEO of College Track. Elissa, welcome.

[00:06:03] ES: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

[00:06:05] MD: So you have a very interesting personal journey that led you to the position you have now. Can you tell us just a little about yourself and your personal connection to College Track’s mission?

[00:06:17] ES: Certainly. So I am a first-generation college graduate myself. So College Track works with first-generation college students to get them to and through college. I have – You have a very similar background and many of our students.

My family is from Mexico. My mom was born Chihuahua. My dad is second-generation Mexican-American, and I grew up right outside of one of our regions in Los Angeles. So I absolutely understand the journey of being the first, navigating the financial, social-emotional, academic terrain that is being the first to go to college. So I feel very connected to the work.

In addition to that, I also was a teacher and then a principal and administrator and worked in policy, so deeply understand kind of the intersection of both K-12 and higher Ed and really what it takes to get kids to and through. So it's been a really great journey to be able to have worked in so many different facets of education and really now be at a place where all of those pieces are coming together and is also deeply connected to my personal journey.

[00:07:25] AL: Where did you get the spark for pursuing education? You seem really connected in a variety of ways to education, being a teacher moving into the position of CEO of College Track. What fed that for you?

[00:07:39] ES: I think it was growing up and recognizing that there is a lot of change that needed to happen in this world. I had a grandfather who was very much committed to the Chicano Rights Movement in Southern California, and he had less than a middle school education himself. My other grandfather on my mom’s side had also an elementary school education. But both of my parents are first-generation high school graduates, and they both really made it very clear that in order to have access to power and create any type of social change, getting an education was really the currency to do that.

So I grew up marching in Chicano Rights marches and came up in a very politically active family. On my mom's side, my grandfather is deeply Catholic. He was a deacon in our local Catholic church and really made the connection between social justice and faith. I think the nexus of those two things really made it clear to me that the world needs us, and one way to really be active and make change is to make sure that you get an education.

[00:08:40] AL: What were the unique challenges you faced in really getting access to admission support or moving into college as a first-generation college goer?

[00:08:51] ES: Unlike many of our students, I feel like I had a really early recognition for why I want to go to college, because it was – I had this kind of fire for social change but I think many of our students don't necessarily have outside of wanting to be self-sufficient. I really have identified kind of a passion and purpose for going to college. So I was really fortunate in that way but I didn't know the first thing I needed to do to be able to navigate the process.

So I was lucky at the time to be a part of a program out of the University of California, the Early Academic Outreach Program, which gave a little bit more help in navigating that process. But I didn’t know the first thing about preparing for the SAT. I didn't know I was supposed to study for it. I know had to figure out how to fill out the FAFSA for the first time, because my parents hadn't gone. I was also fortunate though that I had many friends who were also first in their family to go to college. So there was a lot of – We didn’t call it crowdsourcing back then. But when one person figured out the FAFSA website, the rest of us would kind of get on board.

I think navigating the nuts and bolts I think can be particularly tricky. I think also, for me, and I think this is shared by many first-gen students, is this notion of confidence to be able to apply to specific schools. I often felt because there wasn't a lot of examples in my family. I mean, there weren’t any at this point. I wasn't clear in like what was a competitive school not or what was within my reach or not. So I had my offer that I under matched. I went to a phenomenal university, but there were many other places that I didn't even consider because I thought that they were completely out of my reach. That’s just the getting into part, right? Then there’s the whole once you’re in college part.

[00:10:36] AL: You gave me some real flashback. I think I cried every year in the financial aid office every year of undergrad. That’s when I had some kind of breakdown in their office.

[00:10:46] ES: Well, I mean, I think for any young person, whether you’re the first to go to college or not, the transition is a tricky one. You’re so young, yet responsible for such an adult part of your life, right, like taking on debt or managing finances.

So there's an incredible amount of pressure. I think for me, yeah, I was really lucky once I got to my university that I was able to establish real deep relationships with college professors and I had a mentor in college. That is really a testament to I think the school that I went to, and that it was really small and nurturing and has as a part of its ethos this recognition of really wanting to wrap their arms around kids.

But I don't think that necessarily every university. Big public universities don’t necessarily have that support. So at College Track, we really are aiming to really be those arms that are wrapped around students.

[00:11:37] MD: I even wonder, Elissa, like if for students who don't have support from their families that it’s even harder than ever. The problem now is there's all these places where you have to get the test scores and your grades, and you’ve got to find them. You need a credit card to get these different things. I mean, it’s so much more complicated.

[00:11:58] AL: There are some of these barriers. Then even if you navigate them, there’s no confidence that the system is equitable or [inaudible 00:12:41].

[00:12:09] ES: Yeah. There’s also – I mean, even navigating – That’s like navigating to apply to one school, right? So once you’ve applied and maybe you’ve gotten into a few of them, I think the other place that I have become much more passionate about and my work at College Track and where we have been really trying to develop our advising strategies is really helping students and families make really informed choices once they have several options in front of them.

I think that's particularly important in a time in our country where the return on an investment of a bachelor's degree is up for critique, and we still stand firmly behind a bachelor’s degree is a thing that's going to transform students’ ability to have opportunity and choices and contribute to economic resilience and social mobility. It could be a really tricky thing to navigate. Not just the application but the making the choice to apply. Then, of course, once you're there, all of the other things that come with –

[00:13:05] AL: There's been articles and things kind of out in the media quite a bit around the value of a bachelor’s degree, and it sounds like you stand behind that value. Is the perspective at College Track that every student should pursue a bachelor's degree?

[00:13:20] ES: So everyone of our students, that is our specific mission. So we are working actively with students who are making the choice to pursue not just any college education but a bachelor’s degree. If it means that their pathway towards that bachelor’s degree means starting at community college first or even going to a four-year reverse transferring and then going back, we’re fully supportive of all of those pathways. But our mission really is about the bachelor’s degree because of the currency that it provides students. Again, not just in terms of dollars, their earnings over their lifetime, but this notion of economic resilience, right?

When – During the recession in 2008, the unemployment rates were far higher for people without bachelor’s degrees than people with bachelor’s degrees, even if it meant that the wages weren’t that different. So I just think it's really important for us to recognize that there is a much broader conversation, and we’re supportive of folks getting whatever postsecondary education they can get to advance their resources. But our particular mission is around the bachelor’s degree.

But we’re agnostic about what you major in, and that’s a key part of who we are in recognizing the real purpose and passions and dignity of each of our students that they should be able to choose. It’s not a privilege that should only be available to folks who have more money. That said, I think it's really critically important for our students to understand the average salaries post-graduation based on major categories, right? So we actually track the information.

what’s particularly interesting in our social mobility report, we’ve been now for the last three years surveying our alumni, is there are some initial differences in salary between a STEM major and a non-STEM major. So those are the broad categories that we use, STEM or non-STEM. Part of that, our hypothesis is that really the most important thing is that you are in a major that you are really good at and you are finding work that brings you purpose and value.

But I think it's important to recognize that we are deeply concerned about students being able to pay back their student debt and have a lifetime of economic choice. But we also want them to be happy and thriving in the work that they choose to do.

[00:15:35] AL: It's called a comprehensive college completion program, which I think is important. It's not only about helping students get into college and navigate that piece of it but actually finishing their degree. I know in my personal experience, a lot of kids that I grew up with in our first year of college, those that went, they really flamed out in year one. Then I myself experienced that in my final year. There I was almost at the end and I – It was such a struggle to just power through in the end. So what are the aspects of what you provide that you think makes the most difference to kind of getting kids to the finish line?

[00:16:15] ES: So in our college program, there’s two major services that we provide. What I would offer is that getting kids across the finish line actually starts in high school, which is getting kids as academically ready as possible, because that academic readiness is going to help them. They're going to be able to get into schools that are – Have higher graduates, that have more supports for them on campus, those types of things.

But in our college program, we are, and this is what is making a significant difference and what really distinguishes us from other programs, is we know that it’s not enough to get students into college that tracking them through college is particularly important. So we triage students based on what we know to be true about the last four years that we've known them while they’re in high school. So whether their academic readiness, what their financial vulnerability might be, even their social-emotional wellness.

Given the fact that we’ve spent four years with each of the students, many days after school and then the summer, we have a pretty good idea of what challenges they might face. We triage them and then check in with them. More so our students that are higher needs that we’ll check in much more frequently. Students that are doing okay we might check in maybe once or twice a semester.

So the advising component is we believe deeply critical. Just to be another sounding board and to be able to help students really navigate the inevitable challenges that they're going to face once they step on that campus, even if we’re not necessarily experts on that one campus. So we have students that are going to 280 different schools across the country. We can’t necessarily be experts in all of those campuses but we also – Where we have critical mass, we have our advisors actually go on the campus and visit with students.

But the second piece that we provide that also distinguishes us that becomes a huge barrier for students is our scholarships. So we offer a scholarship for students that are DREAMers, because our undocumented students don't have access to federal financial aid. So we cover the gaps for students that are undocumented. We also have a scholarship for students that if there is unmet need after a federal or institutional aid, and our scholarship can help incentivize them to go to colleges that have higher grad rates.

Then we will also support that scholarship. Then we have a merit-based scholarship where students actually earn money, and we call it bankbook where they earn dollars for – To incentivize specific behaviors that they are doing in high school like getting good grades, completing community service hours. Those types of things that we know are going to make an impact on students once they go to college.

So it starts in high school. The college piece is really what helps folks get across the finish is a distinguishing factor for College Track and then other programs.

[00:19:01] MD: So, Elissa, with the work that you do guiding students through the college process and given that you have a lot of or entirely first-generation students, have you identified a set of particular, specific social-emotional skills that students need to be really strong in to be successful in college as first-generation students? Do you start working with them before college on those?

[00:19:26] ES: We do. So the two big variables that come to mind that are specific to college, and then I will talk a little bit more about that skill sets that are – Or social-emotional skills that are more broadly represented by those two things. The first one is really identifying a student’s purpose for why they're earning their degree.

We begin that process in ninth grade when they join us, and that purpose for earning their degree might evolve. It will actually likely evolve over time. Most college freshmen actually change their majors six or seven times, so we expect that it's a part of the natural development process for even students in ninth grade to not know exactly what they want to do for the rest of her life or what they want to study.

But having students have identify a central goal or a purpose or a problem that they want to solve is the piece that's going to get them through, and we see that over and over and over again for our students that stop out or reverse transfer is it’s not just the external factors that inevitably impact our students from poverty. It's really not having a clear sense of why they're there. So purpose is the first piece.

The second piece is really belonging on campus. So this is consistent with the Gallup survey and all the research on really getting kids connected once they’re in college, is it's really important that our students are identifying community on campus. Not just kind of friends in their dorm room but getting connected to different social groups on campus, making sure they have at least one person that they have identified as a mentor.

Our students who we ask in our college student survey, if they haven’t identified a mentor or they haven’t connected on campus are far more vulnerable in graduating, right? So you have this sense of purpose and you have this sense of belonging that are critically important in social-emotional well-being and health in college.

The more specific skill sets though that are related to that that we begin to identify as early as ninth grade that are related to that are persistence, self-efficacy, and emotional regulation. So we have a process and we just piloted this last year and we are going kind of full network next year where we have been assessing students in three of our centers using the Covitality survey, which really does have a framework that asks students to think about or assess students and their belief in their self, their belief in others, emotional competence, and engaged living. Based on those factors, we’re able identify what students are more vulnerable than others.

In the three centers I just talked about, we’ve had additional wellness services. Next year, we’ll have more wellness services. Some of them were interns from community partners. Some of them are our own staff members who will be able to really target and coach students so that they are not getting on campus for the first time and not having a sense of self-efficacy to be able to advocate for financial aid or be able to talk to a professor when they don't get a good grade or that they have their ability to empathize with others or regulate their emotions. It doesn't – It’s helping them get connected to others on campus.

So it is actually pretty surprising to us about five years ago where we’re looking at data where students that had high GPA and high SAT scores, once they got to college, were stopping out because their feelings of self-efficacy or their ability to connect and belong on campus were not at the place where they needed to be. So that was really actually when we started thinking about what needs to be true in high school to get students ready.

[00:23:01] AL: Right. Earlier you mentioned that some number of your current students are DREAMers, and there's a lot coming out around anxiety and pressure affecting students in K-12 and then into college. When you think about the uncertainty that those students face as far as protection, how are you supporting them and how are you kind of boosting their resilience?

[00:23:01] ES: So we are really fortunate to have been working with DREAMers since our founding in 1997 and have iterated and built upon our support for them along the way. So I'm happy to report, and this is the first thing that we talk about. We have a DREAMer conference every year. It's one of the things that we do to support them. But I remind our DREAMers that there was a world before DACA, and there is now a world after DACA. We were getting students across the finish line before DACA was around, right?

So I think it's important and it was actually students. It was alumni who were – Didn’t have DACA who are coming back to our centers who were helping remind our students that we are living in a time of great anxiety but remember the strength and power of the community that you come from. There were undocumented college students before DACA, and I think it's important to remember that there were folks that were navigating and being scrappy and being resilient through it all.

That said, I think it's also important to acknowledge that it's not just the anxiety that’s created by a student not being able to navigate their own journey, the external factors, and not just for students who are undocumented but for students that are in families where there’s – Maybe their parents are undocumented but they’re not. Or maybe they have a sibling who is undocumented and they're not, where there is most multiple designations in terms of status. The threat of deportation feels very real, because it is very real, right? We have a public environment that is not particularly helpful and really supporting our students.

What we try to do is to remind students of – That they come from a community that has great power and from a tradition, particularly at College Track where we have been supporting students for a long time. We also have a legal aid. So for students who are able to renew their DACA, we are supporting their renewal, because there's not new applications at this time. We were actually supporting the application fee when there were applications. Then I think the last piece, like I mentioned earlier, is making sure that students have – Understand that even though they don't have access to federal aid, that College Track will support them in going to college, regardless of whether or not they are able to access dollars from our federal government.

[00:25:42] MD: I’ve had other colleagues who have done similar kind of work and I remember someone telling me once that it was a big barrier for kids whose families feel like they need to come back at some point to help out the families, and they feel that they really need to go back and help the families if something is going on. Is that something that is common for your students? If so, how do you deal with that kind of a family commitment kind of thing?

[00:26:07] ES: Yes. That is absolutely a piece that we come across. I think it's actually quite common for us, particularly girls and girls from Latino families. I’ve experienced that myself where also – I mean, it’s just scary, right, to have your daughter go off to college far away. So part of what we try to do is we try to engage families early on. What’s coming to mind for me right now is we have a couple centers who have done college tours with our students. But instead of taking students, they either just take parents or they take students with their parents when they go to college tours. The whole day actual tour in Spanish, so families can access it if they are Spanish-speaking families.

So I think engaging families early on the different – We have that luxury, right, because we work with families for four years before they have to make that decision, is getting them used to the idea and the possibility that your student may choose to go somewhere else, right? But ultimately, I think what we are about is really trying to impart the student and family to be able to make that choice for themselves. So should it be the choice of the student and the family and/or perhaps with the great influence from the family but not necessarily the student that it is best to stay closer to home.

We support that decision, and I think there is – Students have to choose for themselves. They’re 17, 18 years old making these decisions, which are really, really tough decisions. We’re agnostic about where our students go, as long as they have the support and the resources to be able to graduate, and we’ll support them in that choice. So we actually – We were surprised to find in our LA center. We initially had a hypothesis that many students weren’t necessarily wanting to go to their local Cal State, which is Cal State LA. It’s very, very close to where our center is. It’s, I don’t know, maybe five miles away. So we thought that everybody would want to leave and not go to school there.

It just so happened that many students, it really was the right fit for them, and we now have critical mass at that school where they are really able to develop a cohort among themselves. So our intention is always to be able to provide as much information as possible so that students and families are really able to make an informed decision. If it so happens that that decision is that they need to stay, then we’ll wrap our arms around them as much as we would if they were off somewhere else.

[00:28:22] AL: We were talking about social-emotional skills earlier. When you think about that, are you explicit in talking about social-emotional competencies with the students that you're supporting? There has been some research that showed that a lot of employers were seeing gaps around social-emotional competency, even in students who had graduated with a four-year degree. They weren’t teaming well or performing well in interviews or these kinds of things. So how explicit are you in talking about that with students? Then what are the sorts of things that you do to support employability post-college?

[00:28:54] ES: Yes. So we’ve just started scratching the surface with the new Covitality report around giving a name to social-emotional skills, at least the specific social-emotional skills that I mentioned earlier; persistence, self-efficacy, emotional regulation. What we have been doing for the last couple years actually though is also training students in identifying their aces scores, so adverse childhood experiences so that they have an understanding of what – Their own understanding of what trauma may hinder them in the future so that they – At least it’s not going to completely determine your fate, but that for students to be able to really name what's coming up for them.

I think it's particularly important for students to recognize and for us to begin to destigmatize needing to get help when they need it, right, and be able to identify it. So in our college program, where this typically comes up is on the one-on-one coaching that we provide to our students. If a student’s particularly having a rough time, our college advisors will not only use the language of social-emotional skills but also help them navigate getting additional support on campus.

As it relates to the post-college and employability, we’ve also – Now that we have many, many more college graduates and alumni than we’ve ever had and that's growing exponentially, in the last two years, we’ve really had this effort to really spread the idea of career fluency across our network. So we’ve done it in a couple ways. One is we’ve partnered with the Opportunity Network. They’ve been phenomenal friends of ours to really train our staff and support students as they are going off to college, particularly during Summer Bridge Program so that they understand basic skills around resumes and interviews and what it’s going to take so that they can actually get their first internship.

Then in addition to that post-college, we are just going to be launching a platform for students to – For our alumni to interact with each other so that they are being able to share information on jobs, being able to practice their skills as they go through interviewing, those types of things.

But back to your point around social-emotional learning and the skills that I think may or may not be lacking, I think one thing that’s particularly important for students to understand as they’re graduating from college is this skill around persistence and just how tough it is, right, to be able to apply to a bunch of jobs or get the interview and then face rejection, which I think is the pressure is far greater and the expectation once you put on all this work and now that you have this degree. So we’re also, through our alumni, organizing a network and trying to make more space for students to connect on that as well.

[00:31:29] MD: Is there anything else that you’re feeling excited about in terms of trends that you're seeing, whether it’s in college prep or whether it's in college support, benefiting and really kind of changing the trajectory of equity in college achievement?

[00:31:45] ES: I am both excited and interested in the result of the SAT putting out their adversity score index just in the last month. I mean, I think it's a first step forward for recognizing that there has historically been both an economic and racial bias in the SAT. But more broadly, that students should be more comprehensively evaluated, right, in the admissions process.

There’s a lot of factors that contribute to evaluating the merit and talent of an individual student. So I’m thrilled about the idea that the SAT is as recognized that there is that bias and has tried to really help admissions officers and provide them with the additional data point around what additional adversity students may have been through as a result of their – Of environmental factors, right, which could have impacted their score.

So it is yet to be actually used widely, and there’s definitely some critiques. One in which race is left out entirely. But I believe that the conversation is changing around the use of standardized assessment. We – It’s still very important for our students at College Track because it is actually what helps students get into better schools. But my hope is that we could have an admissions process that is far less reliant on test scores and far more comprehensive in understanding the true talent and experiences of the young person that is applying to their school.

[00:33:21] AL: Mia and I were speaking earlier about some of the things exposed in the admissions process most recently.

[00:33:30] MD: Room for improvement.

[00:33:31] AL: Right. Lots of room for improvement. Is there one thing that if you could change just one thing about the college admissions process, just one, it was you had a magic wand and you could change that one thing, what would it be?

[00:33:43] ES: It would be ending legacy policies. See. Legacy policies are the more benign way, right, of thinking about how privilege is capitalized in our country. So I think what’s interesting is that in the admissions scandal, it exposed folks actually paying their way to get better SAT scores.

For someone who is still on the test, they’re paying their admissions officers or coaches, right, to – All of those things. Those are so egregious. But when you think about the fact that 29% of Harvard's freshman class are legacies and that three-fourth of their top-ranked US news report universities have legacy policies, it really makes you wonder how we are thinking about merit and equity in our country.

So, yeah. I mean, I think I want our students to have a fighting chance. They deserve it because they’re incredible humans. If they come from a school that doesn't have as many AP classes that they were able to tap into or they were unable to take the $1,200 Princeton Review prep to boost their score by 200 points, that should not be the thing that prevents them from getting into school.

So I think – Again, the – What was helpful about the admissions scandal is that I think it’s beginning to expose some of the pieces, a part of our system that actually have been pretty accessible and acceptable in our country around how – Who is able to have more privilege in the process than others, and I think it's an important question to ask.

[00:35:19] MD: To that end, I’m sure you have identified those colleges who actually have committed to policies like need-blind admissions and that sort of thing. I mean, I feel really proud about my college because I know that they do that. I know a lot of my fellow alums who’ve been very, very sad about their children not being able to get into the college, even sometimes when they’re double legacies. Do you ever encourage your students to be applying to those schools?

[00:35:50] ES: Yeah. I mean, I – We have a framework called our Best-Fit framework that really takes into consideration three important pieces. One of them is whether not there’s a legacy policy. But they – It is more around really leveraging the ROI of your degree. So we encourage students to go to schools that have higher grad rates on a national average because their chances of graduating are going to be higher.

We also encourage students to go to schools that have an average student indebtedness of less than $30,000. Then the last – The third variable that we encourage students to really consider and think about, our schools that haves services for students that are first in her family to go and/or have a very small, if any, achievement gap between low-income students and more privileged students or students of color and white students.

The third category is a little bit tricky. I mean, there's definitely the quantitative achievement gaps that you can measure. But there's also this like intel that we get from our students around what schools have more services than others and who is supporting others. In fact, many of the schools – We now have 22 partnership agreements with universities across the country. Many of the schools that we have partnerships with are the schools that are field leading and providing services to first-gen students, if they’re able to get in.

[00:37:10] AL: Speaking of partnership, you were talking about partnership schools. You also recently announced that or last year announced the partnership with Kevin Durant and talked about expansion to the East Coast. Tell us a little more about that.

[00:37:22] ES: Yeah. Kevin is an incredible partner. About two years ago, we began the journey of giving him a tour of our Oakland center, and he was deeply interested in figuring out what he was going to do with this philanthropy. Once he had come to the Warriors, he was looking for a place that was as interested in the academic preparation and profile of its students as a social-emotional and the other pieces that just create a whole human. So fast-forward a couple years and we opened just this last fall. We’re surveying 68 students and we have just recruited actually another 70 who will begin programming this summer actually.

So it's all very exciting, and we’re just outside of DC and Prince George’s County, Maryland where he spent many of his formative years, both middle school and high school. Actually, he would have – We are actually serving the high school that he would have attended had he not had a basketball scholarship to go to a private high school nearby.

[00:38:27] AL: Congratulations on that initiative.

[00:38:30] ES: Thank you.

[00:38:31] MD: That’s so great.

[00:38:31] ES: Thank you. Thank you.

[00:38:32] MD: Your work is really all about the mentoring and the coaching. We ask our guests this all the time. If there was someone for you personally that had a big influence or positive impact on your life decisions.

[00:38:46] ES: Yeah. Earlier, I mentioned that I was very fortunate to go to a university that was really small and I was able to find a college mentor. She was my peace studies professor actually who I met my freshman year, who then became my minor advisor, and who was also the art campus minister. So my faith has always been very important to me. I come from a long Catholic tradition and not only do I work for her for work-study. So we spent a lot of time together, but she really helped me navigate my way through school. I mean, not just financially in getting my courses but also gave me opportunity to explore things I would've never thought about.

So the first time I ever got on an airplane, I was 19, and it was through a summer experience program that she led. She also really helped me connect what I wanted to do in the world and what problems I wanted to solve with my personal faith, and it was just invaluable. It’s one of the things I talk a lot about when I talk to the students in college or as they’re entering at Summer Bridge is the importance of being able to find just that one, and it could be more.

We would encourage kind of a healthy network of adults on campus that can help guide you. But it’s made all the difference in the world. I absolutely would not have gone through college without her or have been. I’m so deeply interested in social justice, had it not been for my connection to her.

[00:40:15] AL: It sounds like she had a profound effect on and on your work now, thinking about mentorship and –

[00:40:20] ES: Absolutely. Absolutely.

[00:40:22] AL: That kind of guidance. The podcast is called Grow Kinder. Kindness doesn't always enter into the conversation around competitive college admissions or even social-emotional competency. I’d love to hear some more about why you think kindness is important or how you think of kindness in your work.

[00:40:42] ES: Yeah. I mean, I think we can all agree that we’re in a moment of time in our country where kindness can have a profound impact in our national conversation. I think, for me, generosity and being generous with each other is part of our recognition of our shared humanity and whether that's a social-emotional value or not. I think it's the basis of – The other thing about kindness is that it could be so simple. It’s generally within your control to be kind or not. A simple smile or an apology or a moment of gratitude can be all the difference in really sharing and connecting with people.

So, yeah, it’s incredibly relevant and it enters in – At College Track in so many ways. So we have a staff value of authenticity, which really does encourage open and kind and generous conversation. We have closing circle at all of our centers where we give – We have moments of affirmation and gratitude to really remind us of the connection that we have to each other and just how simple a tutor walking into the space or helping you with your math homework or someone thinking through financial aid with you. What a simple gesture can have in the profound journey of your life. So we’re big fans of kindness at College Track.

[00:42:05] MD: So are we. Thank you so much, Elissa, for chatting with us today. If listeners want to know more about you or College Track, where can they go?

[00:42:13] ES:

[00:42:16] MD: Fantastic.

[00:42:17] AL: Thank you so much.

[00:42:17] MD: Elissa Salas, thank you so much for joining us.

[00:42:20] ES: Thank you. Have a good day.

[00:42:21] MD: You too.

[00:42:21] AL: You too.


[00:42:24] ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track. You can find more episodes at If you enjoyed our conversation today, make sure to rate and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.