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Harley Frankel of College Match: “Trust them to find a detailed way to reach those goals”

I would define Leadership as the ability to set important goals, develop a strategy to achieve those goals, hire strong people, and trust them to find a detailed way to reach those goals. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harley Frankel, the […]

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I would define Leadership as the ability to set important goals, develop a strategy to achieve those goals, hire strong people, and trust them to find a detailed way to reach those goals.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harley Frankel, the founder of College Match.

Harley has dedicated his career to improving education. He led the National Head Start program, was heavily involved in the federal student financial aid program, was senior executive for the Children’s Defense Fund, and helped select the first secretary of education while a senior White House aide in the Carter Administration. He was the first in his family to attend college. Frankel has an MBA from Harvard Business School.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Before moving to Santa Monica, I had spent most of my career focused on equal educational opportunities for low-income kids. I was the National Director of the Head Start program, a lobbyist for The Children’s Defense Fund, the Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a Senior White House Aide, and played a key role in getting the necessary last two votes in the House Committee to pass the Pell Grant program. But my positions since moving to CA were mostly in professional sports: Exec. VP for Basketball Operations for the Portland Trail Blazers and one of six Executives who did the detailed planning to establish Major League Soccer.

Our son attended Harvard-Westlake and had all the college access advantages that private school students with knowledgeable parents have. After he was admitted into a very good college, I started thinking about all the low-income kids in Los Angeles and decided to apply the college access knowledge that my wife and I acquired from having a kid at Harvard-Westlake to my original passion — equal educational opportunities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles. And that is why I founded College Match.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

We started College Match in only three public high schools. We began recruiting juniors right after their sophomore years because the College Match program required two full years of support. However, the College Counselor at one of these schools strongly urged us to take a senior who was an extraordinary young woman. She was the President of The Student Council and President of The Senior Class. She was the Head of the Environmental Club, the Head of the Drama Club and President of the Latino Club. And she was undocumented.

I didn’t know much about undocumented students but quickly learned that only a small number of colleges even accepted them (partially due to the fact that they were not eligible for Federal grants and subsidized loans as well as any State assistance.) But this young woman was extraordinary and deserved everything we could do to help her get a collegiate education. In those days, I told people that had she been born in the USA she would be a future mayor of Los Angeles.

Anyway, she got into a great college and graduated with Honors. My wife and I attended her Graduation Ceremony and her wedding. But we stayed with her and began to work with an outstanding immigration attorney in Los Angeles to help her become a US Citizen. Long story short, and with the help of an interesting provision of DACA, she finally became a US Citizen 15 years after I first met her. We do not rank our students, but, if we did, this remarkable young woman would certainly be in the Top 5.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we began College Match, I assumed that what I learned as a Harvard-Westlake parent was sufficient for me to do college access effectively in inner-city Los Angeles high schools. I learned quickly how little I really knew. Fortunately, we hired an outstanding and seasoned College Counselor, Julie Nielson, who had recently retired after serving primarily at Garfield and Jordan High Schools. Julie educated me and was essential to our success. Also, the College Counselor at Bell High School, Tony Reveles, took me under his wing and taught me a great deal. Without Julie and Tony, we never would have been as successful as we have been.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We made a very crucial strategic decision right at the beginning. Our goal was to get our inner-city students into the top colleges and universities just like Harvard-Westlake did. Many college access organizations (and they are all doing God’s Work) are focused on just getting low-income kids into college or just getting them into a four-year college, but we decided that if West LA kids could get into the top colleges, then inner-city students should also.

A couple of examples of our program include providing more college site visits to top East Coast and Midwestern colleges than any other college access program in the country (once students see these great colleges and meet some of the kids there, they often realize that they too could attend these schools.)

A second tenet of College Match is to hire individual SAT instructors that make their living from tutoring private school students one-on-one. We have eleven superb SAT instructors who are devoted to our students and tell us how much they appreciate working with young adults who do not feel entitled.

Most of our College Counselors including our full-time Volunteer College Counselors have previously gotten their own kids into the nation’s top colleges. A summary of our results follow:

2015–2020 College Match Admission Results

Over the past six years, 70% of College Match seniors have been admitted into at least one Top 25 College and 95% have been admitted into at least one Top 50 College. 95% of College Match students graduate from college. (Sadly, the national college graduation rate for low-income students is 16%.)

Six-year admissions totals for these superb institutions of higher learning follow:

93 admits at Wellesley

233 into Middlebury

148 into Smith

18 into Harvard

54 into Brown

23 into Stanford

36 into Yale

34 into Swarthmore

54 into Bowdoin

31 into Cornell

133 into Franklin & Marshall

71 into Dartmouth

24 into Columbia

21 into Princeton

15 into UPenn

25 into Georgetown

17 into Pomona

92 into Vassar

24 into Williams

32 into Carleton

41 into Wesleyan

26 into Amherst

7 into MIT

21 into Colby

14 into Hamilton

47 into Macalester

24 into Claremont McKenna

262 into UC-Berkeley

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Early on, we had a brilliant African American young man at Jordan High School. He literally read more in a year than I read in a decade. The first time he took the SAT’s, he received a 710 in Reading, a 700 in Writing and a 330 in Math. I checked his transcript, and he had all A’s in Math. So, I met with his College Counselor and she explained to me that Jordan is in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Since there are too few math teachers in LAUSD, math teachers get to choose where they teach, and none of them wanted to teach at Jordan. So, this brilliant young man was being taught Math by either former English teachers or Phys. Ed. instructors.

This wonderful student had gone on our East Coast trip and really wanted to attend Yale. I called the key guy in the Yale Admissions Office and asked how high we had to get his Math score for him to be admitted. I was told 550. I then hired a woman who had graduated from Brown and was in LA working on her PH.D. thesis. She gave this young man SAT Math tutoring three days a week for several months. Long story short, he got a 510 in Math and along with his two 700’s was admitted into Yale.

He graduated from Yale With Honors and got a full ride (very rare for a law student) into Berkeley Law School. After doing well at Berkeley, he got a position at a prominent law firm (the same firm at which the first Secretary of Education, The Honorable Shirley Hufstedtler was a Partner.) and did well there. After a few years, he got two Federal Clerkships in Louisiana and in Virginia and sandwiched A Fulbright Fellowship to Africa to teach English. He currently is at another prominent Law firm. P.S. I am trying to get him a position in The Biden Administration.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Truly believe that low-income kids are just as capable as affluent kids.
  2. Convey this belief to inner-city students so that they would believe even more in themselves.
  3. Significantly increase the salaries of public-school teachers. This is an investment that will pay the society back in significant terms.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I would define Leadership as the ability to set important goals, develop a strategy to achieve those goals, hire strong people, and trust them to find a detailed way to reach those goals.

There are many examples, but the one I will mention is our current Executive Director, Erica Rosales. Erica was the first in her family to attend college. She had never been on a plane before but got on one and flew to attend Wellesley College. She came home with her MIT graduate husband and got a Masters in Education at UCLA. She started the first charter school in Los Angeles, was an Admissions Officer at Occidental College and has been with College Match for close to 15 years.

College Access is her life’s work. In all honesty, she runs College Match much better than I ever did. She has hired great staff, has terrific people’s skills, and is a joy to work with. It is so wonderful to retire knowing that Erica will make College Match bigger and better.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I don’t think I can do five, but will provide a few:

  1. I’ve already mentioned that Julie Neilson and Tony Reveles taught me so much about the college admissions process.
  2. I had never done fundraising and had to learn as we went along. My wonderful wife, who has run two child advocacy non-profits taught me a great deal.
  3. One of the things I learned is how devoted and loving the parents of these inner-city students are. Since 85% are Latino, I will focus on them. My Eastern European Jewish grandparents came to America at the beginning of the 20th Century so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives. I was the first in my family to attend college.
  4. I am struck by the remarkable similarities between our students’ Latino families and the immigrant Jewish families that came to America over 100 years ago. They are hardworking, very religious, devoted to their large extended families, and totally dedicated to their children and to each other. When I spend time with Latino families, I come away in awe at what wonderful, kind and generous people they are. They remind me so much of my grandparents and parents. I only wish that more Americans had the opportunity to get to know these delightful people, and I consider myself blessed to be able to do so.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There is so much I would like to see improved, but I think I will stick to education. Before I get into depth, let me admit that this idea is unlikely to occur, but our nation would be better off in the future if it did.

For the vast majority of public-school students, this past educational year has been inadequate to say the least. It is not the fault of the educational system or the students. The fault lies directly with the ineptitude at the Federal level.

Nevertheless, it is the students who will suffer, and possibly be behind for the rest of their lives. I know the conventional wisdom is to get kids back into school as soon as it’s safe and then move on, BUT THIS WHOLE GENERATION OF PUBLIC-SCHOOL STUDENTS WILL BE BEHIND and as we know from history, once a large number of students get behind, the deficits grow larger over time.

So, here is my idea which will never happen. Do not put students in the next grade and assume they will be OK. Instead, start this year over once it is safe for EVERYONE. The worst that happens is that some students see the same material twice and everyone graduates high school at 18 or 19 years old instead of 17 or 18.

That is not a big deal compared to a WHOLE GENERATION OF STUDENTS WHO ARE WAY BEHIND. BY STARTING THE YEAR OVER, SOME KIDS MIGHT SEE THE SAME MATERIAL TWICE, BUT FAR FEWER KIDS WILL HAVE A DEFICIT FOR LIFE. Our future economy will also be much stronger if fewer young adults have deficits.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I went to The Harvard Business School and one of the things I learned there is “That there is always a way to achieve an important goal. You just have to figure it out.”

I’ll try to be brief with the example. In 1978, President Carter wanted to establish a Department of Education. A good idea. But because he truly loved the Head Start program, he included Head Start in his proposal for the Department.

The Chair of the key Committee was Sen. Ribicoff, and he wanted to create a very big Department. The most powerful education group was the National Educational Association (NEA) and they wanted to include Head Start in the Department.

Including Head Start in the Department would have turned this outstanding COMPREHENSIVE SERVICES child development project into a pre-kindergarten education program instead of a comprehensive services program that included primary health care, dental care, mental health care, free breakfast (which few schools had) and free lunch and MINORITY PARENTS OF THE STUDENTS IN CHARGE OF MOST LOCAL COMMUNITY-BASED PROGRAMS.

I was working with Marian Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund in those days, and we and the entire Head Start Community were very upset by this possibility. But Carter, Ribicoff and the NEA were the “good guys”, and they had all the power. All my astute friends in Washington told me to forget it; we didn’t have a chance.

My response was Head Start was too important; we had to find a way.

Given that the Center Left was completely behind the Carter/Ribicoff/NEA proposal, we had to turn the issue into a civil rights fight. In the days before email, we got 50,000 hand-written letters sent to all the members of the key Committees.

In addition, advocates for Head Start bused large numbers of minority parents to Washington and they sat in the offices of key senators. The “good guys” had never dealt with this kind of resistance previously. Finally, the NEA became worried that they may lose the entire Department.

The NEA asked that Head Start be taken out of the Department, and we had won a fight that looked impossible a few months before.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are so many. Let me just say Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s Secretary of Education-Designate, to discuss my idea of how to handle this education school year.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not on social media, but College Match’s website is www.collegematchla.org and on Instagram, it’s @cmatchla.

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