As a high school sophomore in Cloquet, Minn., Luke Heine had two conversations that would change the direction of his life. First, as he stood in line at McDonald’s, a friend told him he should look into financial aid in the Ivy League, something he hadn’t even known existed. Then, months later, a fellow weight-lifter in the school gym told him he should prepare for the ACT college-admissions test to increase his odds of acceptance.
“I thought that studying for the ACT was cheating, but he said that most people do it, and I studied and raised my scores, and that brought me here,” said Heine ’18. “A lot of kids back home never get this piece of advice. I just got lucky. It was luck that brought me here.”
Over the past two years, Heine and classmate Cole Scanlon ’18, who grew up in a low-income family in Coral Gables, Fla., have worked together to develop an admissions guide inspired by their own experiences, launching the nonprofit Fair Opportunity Project in the process.
“We want students from all backgrounds to have a fair shot in applying for college,” Heine said.
“I was lucky a teacher in high school took me under his wings,” said Scanlon, an economics and applied mathematics concentrator. “There is so much information out there, and many don’t know how to fill out so many complicated forms. A lot of students don’t know how to navigate the process.”
The guide includes samples of real college essays, a list of scholarships and financial aid resources, and tips on how to organize applications. The main goal is to level the playing field in college admissions, Heine and Scanlon say. Wealthy students have access to private consultants, while public school students often can’t get enough support from overwhelmed guidance counselors. At Scanlon’s high school, there was only one counselor for the entire senior class.
The guide, said Scanlon, both frees up counselors to act as mentors and empowers students.
“If a student is having trouble finding scholarships, he or she can go to our website and to our scholarship section and apply to the six scholarships we recommend,” he said. “There are free resources out there and many students are not aware they exist.”
The guide includes plenty of concrete tips, such as choosing challenging courses and striving to maintain a high GPA. It also encourages students to create a project, start a business, or launch a nonprofit, ideas aimed at grabbing the attention of admissions deans.
In the first months of the effort, Heine and Scanlon crammed in their dorms, gathering material and editing it, building the site, and sending PDFs of the guide to 57,000 U.S. high schools. They were helped by a group of 20 student volunteers.
The positive response to the project has included recognition from Forbes magazine, which last year named Heine and Scanlon to its 30 under 30 in Education. The guide has been posted on more than 60 school websites and downloaded in 35 countries, and the site continues to receive thousands of visitors each month. Versions in Spanish and Mandarin are available.
For Heine and Scanlon, the most rewarding part of the project has been the feedback. A counselor from a charter school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, sent an email praising “such a clear and thorough document that students from all backgrounds can have access to and understand.” A counselor in Cameron, N.C., said the guide shows “the admissions process truly from the eyes of a teenager.”
Although they’re keeping their options open, Heine and Scanlon are considering working on their project full time after graduation.
“Pretty early on, I realized there were inequities in opportunity,” said Scanlon. “We both care about education, equity, opportunities for communities that are left out of the conversations, and doing something about it gets us both fired up.”