Catalyst: Removing the Rocks on the Pathway to College

At the College Board, Steve Bumbaugh is all about access.

May 23, 2023

| by Lee Simmons

Steve Bumbaugh says school integration has been quietly abandoned. | Chloe Cushman

The Problem: large inequities in student access to higher education.

The Plan: provide resources that help level the playing field for disadvantaged youth.

Steve Bumbaugh was one of the lucky ones, as he’ll be the first to tell you. The son of working-class parents, he grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time when America was trying in earnest to desegregate education. At his schools in Alexandria, Virginia, he sat next to the children of World Bank economists and Washington Post editors, and it opened a world for him.

In this ongoing series, we highlight work by alumni and executive program participants to solve contemporary problems.

Bumbaugh seized the opportunity and went on to attend Yale and later Stanford, where he earned his MBA in 1996. “Had I stayed in the all-black schools in low-income neighborhoods,” he says, “there is no chance I’d have made it to an Ivy League university, or that I’d have done well enough there to be where I am today. Zero.”

Where he is, in fact, is back home in Washington, D.C., as an executive at the College Board, the nonprofit that administers standardized tests like the SAT and develops Advance Placement classes to prepare students for college. As senior vice president of college, career, and digital access, his mission is to improve access to higher education for disadvantaged youth.

Bumbaugh knows what these kids are up against. After graduating from Yale — and convinced that what worked for him could work for others — he went back to teach in Anacostia, a D.C. neighborhood devastated by the crack epidemic and urban decay. There, in an area with the highest murder rate in the country, he co-ran an innovative school within a school.

“Advanced coursework is a democratizing lever that we should pull at the earliest grades possible.”

The effort to integrate schools has been quietly abandoned, Bumbaugh says. “Public schools are less diverse now than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Fifty percent of black students today attend segregated schools classified as ‘drop-out factories.’ It’s tragic, and we’ve moved away from even talking about it.”

The solution to failing schools is actually pretty simple, he says: “The poor kids just need what the rich kids have. If you want to eliminate poverty and racism in the United States, think about the resources your children have and make sure everybody’s children have them.”

After graduating from Stanford, Bumbaugh went off to work for and lead a number of organizations working to address that resource gap, dealing not just with education but also issues like health, housing, food security, and what he calls the carceral state.

But he still believed that higher education offered a way out of poverty — if we could just get kids to that stage and give them the skills to succeed there. So in 2015, when the College Board asked him to lead that effort, he jumped at it. “This organization touches 90% of American high school students,” he says. “There aren’t many opportunities to work at that kind of scale.”

At the College Board, Bumbaugh’s focus is on young people who, through no fault of their own, are off the pathways that lead to college. Part of it, he says, is an information gap. Low-income families often have no idea how to prepare for college or navigate the application process — topics of constant conversation in affluent communities.

So his team developed what he describes as “a college planning tool disguised as a scholarship.” It breaks the process down into six steps that start in 11th grade. Taking the first step, which is just to list six target colleges, earns students the chance to win a modest scholarship. “That’s the enticement, but it’s really meant to demystify the process and get the ball rolling.”

Working with Khan Academy, they also created a free online SAT prep course that has gotten rave reviews from users. Bumbaugh says he disagrees with those who’d abolish standardized tests like the SAT. “It’s an objective measure of critical skills,” he says. “And you know, tell me one time in American history when a more subjective process benefited people of color.”

Bumbaugh is also a big proponent of Advance Placement classes. He works with schools to open them to more students and remove needless barriers, and he urges kids to take advantage of them. “It’s going to be a shock to the system, but you’ll study with the best teachers in your school, and it’ll prepare you like nothing else for the rigor of college work.”

For students of color, there are intangible barriers too. “If you walk in and there’s no one who looks like you, you might say, ‘Whoa, do I belong here?’” That’s partly why he pushed for the creation of a new AP African American Studies curriculum. The course became a political lightning rod in January when Gov. Ron DeSantis banned it in Florida schools; to others, the furor merely underscored the need for such a class.

“Advanced coursework is a democratizing lever that we should pull at the earliest grades possible,” Bumbaugh says. “We could do that in this country. A century ago we made a national commitment to universal education, and literacy rates exploded. We could do the same thing on this if we wanted to.”

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