How SMART is Leveling the College Playing Field for Low-Income Students

The Bay Area’s underserved students are defying the odds on the tough road to college.

As an aspiring first-generation college student, Angela faced many hurdles along the path toward her goal of attending college. A daughter to immigrant parents and the youngest of four children, the odds of graduating from college were not in her favor.

Angela with her SMART Advisor
Angela with her SMART Advisor

The statistics are troubling: Only one-in-10 low-income high school students graduate from college. But Angela is beating those odds. Now a senior in high school, she has been admitted with full scholarships to both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

She may be defying statistics, but Angela’s success is no coincidence. For the past eight years Angela has been a participant in SMART, a comprehensive program in San Francisco that provides low-income students access to an exceptional education and the skills they need to thrive in college and in life.

SMART Scholars in After School Program
SMART Scholars in After School Program

SMART’s vision is to end the cycle of poverty by providing students and families financial, academic, social and emotional support, as well as to provide college preparation and career exploration. Its philosophy is that a child’s future should not be determined by a ZIP code or family income level.

Angela’s background is typical of SMART Scholars. Families in the program are in the lowest income quartile in San Francisco, earning less than $45,000 per year on average. In addition, more than 95 percent of those enrolled in the program are prospective first-generation college students and four of every five primarily speak a language other than English at home.

Asaf Bar-Tura with SMART's Student Advisory Council
Asaf Bar-Tura with SMART’s Student Advisory Council

Despite these barriers, every single high school senior in the SMART program has been admitted to college — and it has been this way for years. Mauricio, a graduate of SMART and now a sophomore at the University of Puget Sound near Seattle, explains, “SMART has been the main support system I’ve had since before middle school.” After growing up in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, Mauricio is now a leader on campus. He says SMART helped him prepare for college, adding, “They helped me get comfortable expressing opinions in a room full of people who don’t know what struggling in life means.”

SMART Scholars Celebrating their Success
SMART Scholars Celebrating their Success

SMART’s participants enter the program in fifth grade. Through weekly programming, they develop social emotional intelligence and leadership skills and receive academic support. Additionally, SMART supports them through career and college exploration and assists with the college and financial aid application processes.

SMART also takes students on college tours to Northern and Southern California three times prior to high school graduation and provides free SAT test prep classes. It convenes an annual career conference, which exposes the program’s scholars to professional pathways while building essential networking and interview skills to equip them for career success.

SMART Scholars on a Field Trip
SMART Scholars on a Field Trip

Reflecting on the role SMART played in her road to college, Angela says, “They’ve been so involved with the college process, from educating us early on about getting letters of recommendation to understanding the process of applying to college. It’s really helpful to me, as a first-generation student, who had to figure out a lot of this alone. SMART helped me achieve my goals.”

In a few weeks, SMART will celebrate 20 years of college success. SMART’s signature fundraising dinner — “SMART Goes to College” — champions diversity, equity and inclusion in education. On May 17, SMART’s transformative work will be celebrated by hundreds of guests including dedicated philanthropists, school partners, community advocates, and corporate sponsors, such as Ropes & GrayTSSP and others.

Find out how you can support SMART and get more involved. After all, it takes a village.

Make It Better is the proud media sponsor for the SMART Goes to College event on May 17.


Asaf Bar-Tura serves as the executive director of SMART in San Francisco. Prior to SMART, Bar-Tura served as director of the Posse Foundation in Chicago, which received the Make It Better Philanthropy Award in 2014. He also served as a commissioner on the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, to which he was appointed by the governor of Illinois. Bar-Tura earned a Ph.D. in political theory from Loyola University Chicago, where his research focused on the intersection of digital media design and democratic participation. He is a proud husband and father of two.

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