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Paige Ponder '02 is CEO of One Million Degrees, which provides a variety of supports to low-income community college students.

Paige Ponder

Community investment

One Million Degrees CEO Paige Ponder ’02 advances a new way to support community college students

By Barb Granner

3/25/2014 - For Paige Ponder, education runs in the family. Her father is a professor of education, her mother is a teacher, and she was once a vice principal at an elementary school before realizing she could do more from outside the classroom. That’s when Ponder applied to Kellogg.

“Pursuing a graduate degree in education would have been a logical next step for me,” says Ponder ’02. “But my mentor from college suggested business school as an opportunity to develop leadership, management and systems skills that I could apply to any industry.”

Today, Ponder is chief executive officer of One Million Degrees, a Chicago nonprofit that provides financial, academic, personal and professional support to highly motivated low-income community college students. One Million Degrees is on a strong growth trajectory—starting with just a handful of students in 2006 and is now serving 130 students this school year—with plans to grow over the next five years.

With an operating budget of $1.5 million, the organization recently received an infusion of funding and other resources from Social Venture Partners Chicago and A Better Chicago, a pair of venture philanthropy groups. The pro bono consulting is the major benefit, Ponder says. “The funding is the icing on the cake.”

An overlooked population

Nearly half of all undergraduate students in the country are at community colleges, according to National Center for Education Statistics. The vast majority, however, do not complete their degrees. Nationally, the graduation rate for community college students is 38 percent. In Chicago, it’s currently at 13 percent.

The reasons for that abysmal graduation rate are complex and interwoven, Ponder says. Most students juggle school with a full-time job and a family to support. Many travel long distances to get to class. Others need academic help. “They don’t have access to the kind of scholarship dollars and support programs that are in place for low-income students at four-year colleges,” she says.

Multi-pronged support

Program participants, also known as scholars, receive multi-pronged support to help break through those barriers, including “last-dollar scholarships” after state and federal aid and a stipend to help defray the cost of books, transportation, child care and other expenses.

Scholars work with a program assistant who provides accountability, guidance and mentoring, as well as with expert tutors and coaches who are volunteer professionals. Scholars commit to participating in monthly workshops about life skills such as managing money, dressing “for success” and interviewing. “We have very high expectations and a lot of accountability built in,” says Ponder.

And it’s working. Scholars are graduating at a rate of 70 percent – at least three times the state’s average – and 94 percent are working, continuing their education or both.

Ponder’s vision for the organization includes growing the program in Chicago, expanding the model into other cities, and acting as a thought leader and advocate for community college students. “This is not just about our scholars finding a job,” says Ponder. “This population should be a key player in the talent pipeline. This should be a pivot point for them to enter the middle class.”

Read about more Kellogg community members involved in education: