In its inaugural year in the region, College Possible connects low-income students with a path to higher education

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A College Possible alumna herself, Ashley Ehlers graduated from Whitman College last spring and became a coach for the region's recently launched program. She works with 30 students in East Multnomah County.

A college prep program new to East Multnomah County that helps low-income students access higher education recently was boasted about in a Harvard study.

“While there are many organizations working to promote college access for low-income students, to my knowledge, College Possible is the only program that has demonstrated its success in increasing applications and enrollment at four-year colleges in a randomized trial,” said Dr. Christopher Avery, a Harvard Kennedy School professor.

In its first year in the Portland area, College Possible includes 142 students  18 students from Sam Barlow, 29 from Gresham High, 40 from Reynolds and 55 from David Douglas.

“I’m going to be the first generation in my family to go to college, and I knew I was going to need help,” said Olivia Decklar, a Gresham High junior. “I thought this would give me more opportunities and tools.”

Decklar plans to study education and journalism, with dreams of attending Syracuse University and eventually becoming a journalist and high school English teacher.

“There’s a lot of commitment, but it provides a break from school and a way to have that designated time for the college searching experience,” Decklar said. “You get to know classmates in a more intimate way and have one-on-one feedback from your coach. You don’t really get that in classes of 50 kids.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Olivia Decklar, a Gresham High junior, listens to her coach, Ashley Ehlers, during a College Possible session. Decklar dreams of attending Syracuse University, with aspirations of becoming a journalist and high school English teacher.

Decklar is coached by Ashley Ehlers, a College Possible alumna herself who graduated from Whitman College last spring. The program began in Minnesota, Ehlers’ home state, in 2000 and has expanded to Nebraska, Wisconsin and now Oregon, serving about 15,000 students.

College Possible relies on AmeriCorps coaches who focus on “peer relationships,” acting as friends and role models to the students, often staying in contact long after students have graduated.

“Now I’m seeing the work on the coach side of things,” Ehlers said. “It’s amazing in that it makes me realize how grateful I was for the program and needed it. (College Possible) has become a big part of my life, and I want to be an advocate for the next group of students.”

Over the next two years, Decklar and her classmates will meet for two hours twice a week after school their junior and senior years, completing more than 320 hours of programming.

Along with studying for exams and preparing applications, students volunteer in their communities during the course of College Possible.

“I feel happy because I want to set an example for my sisters,” said Counteisha “Girly” Motley, a Reynolds junior. “I feel like showing them they can do even better than I did.”

This fall, students had the opportunity to create care packages, help symphony patrons with programs and tickets, serve a meal to the hungry and feed families for Thanksgiving.

In its 13-year history, 98 percent of College Possible participants have been accepted to college, and nearly 94 percent have gone on to enroll in college. These students are 10 times more likely to earn a college degree than low-income students nationally.

Retired CEO and education advocate Ken Thrasher saw these statistics and identified the nonprofit organization as one that would benefit communities in the Portland area. Now he serves as board chairman, with Suzanne Geary serving as Portland’s executive director.

By 2020, College Possible is expected to reach 20,000 students in 10 locations across the country. To qualify for College Possible, students must have a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher and qualify as low-income by receiving free or reduced lunch or coming from a family with a lower income than the median income for families in the district.

“I hope that the students will be empowered, more confident in themselves and appreciative of their diverse backgrounds and experiences,” Ehlers said.

For more information, call 503-907-0248 or visit

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Students meet two hours twice a week after class at school their junior and senior years, preparing for the SAT and ACT and learning about the college application process. They go on to submit applications their senior year and tour college campuses that interest them.

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