Potential on the Periphery: College Access from the Ground Up

Omari Scott Simmons is the author of the forthcoming book Potential on the Periphery: College Access from the Ground Up.


About the Book

Potential on the Periphery: College Access from the Ground Up contextualizes the experience of one college access organization, the Simmons Memorial Foundation (SMF), within the broader realm of existing education practice, academic theory, and public policy. Since its inception two decades ago, SMF has helped hundreds of underrepresented students in rural southern Delaware and North Carolina achieve admission, attend, and graduate from some of the most selective colleges in the nation. This organizational account of achievement in the face of intransigent obstacles yields unique contextual insights and fresh perspectives not captured by aggregated statistical analysis.

The chapters contain unfiltered vignettes and reflections captured from in-depth student interviews that vividly illustrate students’ dedicated efforts, strategies, challenges, perseverance and impressions as they navigate arguably the most important decision in a high school student’s life: whether and where to attend college. Students do not succeed in a vacuum. Sustained individual and group efforts can ultimately catapult them from mediocrity to success.

Although unique, the SMF organizational experience is also emblematic of many college access organizations nationwide that attempt to transform the prevailing narrative of two higher education systems: one serving the privileged; the other, the vulnerable. On a broader level, it reflects the important impact of civil society necessitated by the failure of government and markets to address student needs from the bottom-up, while recognizing that civil society can only complement, not replace, responsible government intervention.


This book explores how the current policy framework miscalculates the higher education needs of minority, low-socioeconomic status, and other vulnerable students by ignoring important, often layered contextual factors that resonate at the student, family, school, community, and policy levels to limit student choices. Obstacles are not as simple as K-12 academic preparedness; they include inadequate information, misperceptions, limited opportunities for social capital acquisition, financial pressures, self-doubt, and political weakness.

Despite the failure of government and market-based responses to address these problems, civil society, composed of organizations and individuals, has designed and deployed an array of innovative methods and approaches to surmount structural impediments to higher education access and attainment. These micro-successes can inform the macro-reform response.

The existing higher education access discourse, while furthering our understanding, provides an incomplete assessment. It tends to discuss higher education access from an institutional or top-down perspective. Few consider civil society’s impact and bottom-up approaches. Narratives Transformed will illuminate underlying contextual factors thwarting student achievement and identify pragmatic strategies to address them.

It is a crucial and urgently needed contribution to educational discourse, policy, and practice in America. It will inform and inspire!