Q&A with Leah Merrifield: A leading voice for socioeconomic diversity at Wash U.

One university’s innovative program to prepare talented but under-resourced kids for getting into and through selective colleges

Photo of Stephen Burd

Higher Ed Watch

Leah Merrifield, Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Diversity Initiatives, in front of the west facade of Brookings Tower.

Leah Merrifield has long pushed Washington University in St. Louis to become more socioeconomically diverse. Now Merrifield, who has been an administrator at Wash U. for two decades, may play a key role in helping the university achieve its goal of bringing more low-income students to campus.

As the university’s assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, she is leading a college preparatory program she helped create that works with promising low-income students in St. Louis, preparing them to attend highly selective private institutions such as Wash U.

I recently talked to Merrifield about the College Prep program and the university’s plan to enroll more Pell Grant recipients. Here is an abridged version of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Question: What is College Prep?

Answer: The program, which we started in the summer of 2014, is about helping talented but under-resourced kids in the St. Louis area be better prepared to get into and then complete college at a pretty competitive or selective institution. So this isn’t just about preparing kids so that they can go to college. This is about finding some young people who are talented—who are probably going to college—but let’s help them think bigger and then be prepared to complete the degrees wherever they end up going.

Q: How do you select students to participate in the program?

We decided not to create a program where we partnered with only certain high schools. We said, let’s open this up in the St. Louis region, on both sides of the river. Let’s reach out to all of our school partners, but let’s also just reach out to the community and we’ll start with a nomination process, and anybody can nominate. So if you’ve got a kid who lives next door to you, and you think, “You know, he’s smart, but I’m not sure he has everything he needs to get where he can go, so I’m going to nominate him.” We thought that allowed us to be as inclusive as possible. Anybody can nominate—your choir director, your Boy Scout leader, and even the next-door neighbor.

Related: Five things to know about Wash U.’s plan to become more socioeconomically diverse

How do people find out about it?

Formally and informally. So we send out email blasts and we use social media. If you told me that you have a neighborhood association and you thought there were some kids there, I would come and do a presentation. We send notices to publications.

And then we get nominations in. We do some screening. The program is designed to reach students who would be the first in their families to go to college and families that don’t make a lot of money. So we review the nominations, generally screening for those sorts of factors. If the nomination says the father is a dentist and the mother is a doctor, that’s not our target population.

And then the students themselves are directly sent the application materials, which generally mirror what they would see once they start applying to college. So they have to write a small essay, and they have to have two letters of recommendation and at least one of them has to come from a current teacher.

We started out pretty small. We thought, if we can get 20 kids, we would have a nice pilot. We got well over 100 completed applications. We got 200 nominations. So I was in a tough spot. I wasn’t really trying to be the person who said “No.” I just wanted to get enough so I could say “yes” to everybody. So instead of 20, we got it up to 26 and started the program that first summer.

What kind of academic qualifications do you look for?

It’s really a mix of things. The academic piece sort of in the traditional sense of grades is probably the least important factor for us. It’s a multi-year program—so the students are admitted in the spring of their freshman year of high school—so you have one semester of high school grades, which from our perspective doesn’t make or break anything. So we look very closely at the letter of nomination, and then those letters of recommendation, and then those essays. What do you have to say about yourself and does that really sync with what a teacher, your band director—whoever nominated you—said about you?

Related: Washington University’s plan to enroll more low-income students moves forward

If you have a transcript full of “F”s from your fall semester, that’s likely not going to help you. But if you got a D in history, and you got a strong letter of recommendation from your English teacher who says you are a creative thinker—that you’re someone who plays nicely in the sandbox with others—and you really articulated your argument in your essay, we will consider you.

What are the students required to do?

The students agree to come live on our campus for three summers. The first summer we focus on science, writing, and then the social and cultural piece—“Who am I? Do I fit in?” Starting the second and third summers, we add an additional academic piece, which is a four-credit course. For the returning students, the 26 in that first cohort—in addition to science, in addition to their writing, in addition to us talking about difference, and some literature stuff—they took a four-credit course, which was designed and taught by the director of graduate studies in our art and design school. It was a design-thinking class. It was really wonderful to see them try to figure out, “What is ‘design-thinking,’ and how can I create something that addresses this design problem and create a prototype?”

So the first summer, you come for two weeks, the next two summers are three weeks, and you earn an additional hour of academic credit with this course. And then during the academic year, we promise the students and their families that they will have at least two opportunities each semester to come back to campus. So we do a combination of academic stuff and enrichment. They’ll go to a basketball game, but then we’ve done some poetry workshops, some writing-center workshops. For the students who are now juniors, they’re coming back and doing ACT prep workshops. We started that in the summer, but we will do it again through the fall and in the spring. We want our students to have as much exposure to ACT prep so that when they sit for the exam in the spring, they will be as prepared as they could possibly be.

So you started with 26 students. What’s happened since?

In the summer of 2014, the program started and then we had St. Louis explode at the end of that summer with the tragic events in Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, and then a lot of conversation internally and externally about what are we going to do, what have we done, and what more can we do? So that provided an opening for me to say, “Well, you know, we just started this program for low-income, first-generation students, and it went very well. If you give me some more money, we could scale this up some.” Sometimes you get what you ask for, and I got the “OK” to double the size of the program. So we scaled up. The first summer, we had 26. The next summer we ended up with 46 students in our second cohort of students. We’re now recruiting for cohort 3, which will be, at least right now, at the scaled-up size of about 50 students.

After the summer is over, you keep in touch with the students?

Yes, we do. We bring them back to campus, and we say to them, to the extent you are comfortable with it, we would like to be part of your lives too. So we go to high-school football games, and soccer games, and the first varsity cheerleading event of the year, and National Honor Society inductions, and concerts. We go, and we cheer and we support. We do school visits, so I have eaten my fair share of cafeteria lunches. It gives us the chance to see them in their environment, and also to have additional face time with the counselors or the principals in their schools—to say we’re not playing around here, we are serious about our students and their lives. We’re not trying to supplant what you do. We’re trying to enhance what you do. We feel like we are all in partnership.

Related: Meet the financial-aid program that requires colleges to supplement, not supplant, federal aid

And you plan to stay in touch with them once they get to college?

Yes. The goal is not just for them to go to Bowdoin, or go to Emory, but it is to graduate and so what we certainly see on our campus, even for the highest-achieving students at Wash U., if you don’t have that muscle to push through, the chances that you won’t increase dramatically. After our students have spent three years with our undergraduate mentors and our staff people and our graduate fellows, they’ll have relationships—so that when they’re at Bowdoin and they get that first exam and they get a bad grade, there are people here who will say, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s not what you really want, but you can do this, and let me make sure you are connected to the appropriate resources on your campuses.” And then when they come home—because they’re all St. Louis kids—we will have a set of experiences and opportunities for them to engage. So whether it’s getting some tips from our career center, or they come back and they really are struggling in math or science, we’ve got work-study students here whom we pay to do tutoring, so when they’re home from break, they can get some tutoring.

How does this program relate to the university’s plan to enroll more low-income students?

I would say that there is no formal tie-in. But it wouldn’t surprise any of us that after three summers of spending multiple weeks on our campus, sleeping in those really fancy residence halls that we have, eating food out of the tandoori oven, being taught by instructors here, and being familiar with the campus, we will have some number of those students who will be interested in attending Washington University. And, in fact, at one of our last focus groups, one of the students said to us, “We know that this isn’t a program specifically about coming to Wash U., but some of us want to come here.” So we do build in opportunities for them to meet with admissions, to work with our financial aid people, whether they come to Wash U. or whether they don’t. So I think it will provide an additional pipeline, but that’s not the primary focus.

How much does Wash U.’s plan to become more socioeconomically diverse mean that there will be changes in the way the university recruits students?

I’m not the dean of enrollment management, but from my perspective, it changes everything. If we want to have different outcomes, logic would suggest that we can’t just do the same things we’ve already been doing.

I know that we are engaging with community-based organizations across the country that maybe we didn’t have as much engagement with in the past. Locally, this is something that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of. We’re doing outreach to schools and principals and counselors in the St. Louis area that we didn’t used to, partly because now we have some relationships there, we’ve got kids in those schools and we know some counselors. So I think there is an additional effort to expand the breadth of people, organizations, entities with whom we connect, both formally and informally.

Related: Which college will replace Wash U. as the least socioeconomically diverse in the country?

So that part I know about because I’m involved in it. Logic also suggests to me, in that admissions process, we’ll be looking at things maybe differently than we did before. So maybe we had a narrow band of schools; that band is likely going to become wider. Maybe we had a more narrow set of counselors and advisors and influencers that we worked with; I think that band is going to become wider. I think we’ll spend more time—we spend a lot of time on admissions applications already—but I suspect more time will be spent really trying to understand who students are and what their abilities are, and trying to make sure that we are looking for every opportunity to provide a spot for students than maybe we did before.

Are you pleased about the plan?

Absolutely. I don’t want to sound like a commercial or a politician, but it’s an investment in America. I mean, come on now, we have millions of people who are underperforming, who are under-contributing to our society. I tell our students all the time, I want you to be the highest possible earner you can be, because I want you to be paying into my Social Security. This is an investment in America; why wouldn’t we do it?

How else do you think College Prep will benefit Wash U. as it seeks to become more diverse?

I think the other piece about a program like College Prep is that it helps us internally. When we have opportunities for more students who are low-income, first-generation to come to our campus, to be in classrooms, to be in the library where they are needing resources, all of the places where they are, then that helps our community become better acquainted with the population, so that when they actually show up as freshmen, our head is clearer. Maybe we have fewer assumptions about what they can and can’t do. They don’t seem as alien.

Related: Changing the incentives for colleges to enroll and graduate low-income students

So, succinctly, I would say that I see the College Prep program as one piece of the overall strategy that Washington University has to address these issues of access and opportunity for first-generation and low-income students. It’s one piece of the puzzle.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Stephen Burd

Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst in the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute in Washington, DC.… See Archive