University Park

Grants helping University prepare students for college

By Gary W. Cramer
Public Information

and Geri Weilacher
Educational Equity

When Richard Rubano Jr., superintendent of the Farrell Area School District in Mercer County, thinks of the hundreds of middle and high school kids in his close-knit community who aspire to attend college, he knows that the key to preparing them lies in personalized help at the local level.

"Ours is the third-poorest school district in the state, and one of the things that is remarkable is that while only 6 percent of our population is college educated, about 66 percent of our students want to pursue education beyond high school," Rubano said. "We try to work with them to tell them what to expect in college." However, the school district has just one guidance counselor of its own for nearly 500 secondary-level students.

To bolster its outreach efforts to schools facing such situations, Penn State's Academic Advancement Programs recently secured two federal Talent Search grants totaling $3 million over five years. The grants will help prepare nearly 1,500 youth annually in some of the neediest school districts in Western Pennsylvania and York for college or other post-secondary education.

Penn State also received a separate two-year federal grant of $540,000 to train professionals nationally to help low-income, first-generation college students who are already enrolled to overcome barriers to success in higher education. (For information, check the Web at

Through University-employed counselors based in school districts, the University's Talent Search program has, for the past 11 years, annually prepared nearly 950 Western Pennsylvania youth in grades six through 12 for learning after high school. The new grants support work in the schools districts of Aliquippa (Beaver County), Clairton City (Allegheny County), Farrell (Mercer County), New Kensington-Arnold (Westmoreland County) and Sharon City (Mercer County), and Penn State's new Talent Search program for 600 youth in the York City School District (York County). Similar grants have helped Penn State assist more than 2,300 Western Pennsylvania high school graduates over the years, more than 82 percent of which have enrolled in college or other postsecondary educational programs.

Talent Search belongs to the TRIO programs funded by the federal government to help low-income citizens overcome social, class and cultural barriers to learning. The majority of the Talent Search students would be the first in their families to earn a college degree.

"The partnership has been outstanding and has made a big difference in helping our students attend schools," Rubano said. "I've heard from students who went on to college that Talent Search made all the difference in their success. When I attend functions like our sporting events, they'll come up to me and say, 'If it wasn't for going through Talent Search, I don't think I'd have made it.'"

Teresa Tassotti, director of Talent Search Western Pennsylvania, reports, "The Talent Search counselors work at the schools day in and day out to provide services to the students -- holding monthly meetings and one-on-one sessions for college preparation; giving counseling in the areas of academics, career exploration and skills development; and taking students to visit various institutions of post-secondary education. Another goal is fostering financial aid awareness and preparation, not just for the students, but also for their families. In fact, one of the highlighted areas in the new grant is building a stronger engagement of parents in their child's preparation for higher education."

According to Tassotti, not only does the partnership give school districts access to resources they might not otherwise enjoy, it gives Penn State access to information from the K-12 front that the University's education experts can use. The programs tap into staff and faculty at Penn State campuses near the participating school districts, as well as at the University Park campus.

"The schools have many battles on their own fronts -- shrinking resources, tougher academic standards and accountability issues, a high rate of problems in their communities that have an impact on their schools," Tassotti adds. "We don't come in and try to replace their guidance counselors, but to complement their work as growing numbers of first-generation students place a challenge on what they can accomplish on their own."

For more information on Penn State Academic Advancement Programs, housed in the Office of Vice Provost for Educational Equity, call (814) 865-0459 or visit on the Web.

Last Updated March 20, 2009