Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Rick Dalton was seven years old when he experienced what would become the inspiration for his life’s work.
As Hurricane Diane made landfall in North Carolina in August 1955 and swept up the coast, it left in its wake the costliest devastation of any tropical storm up to that time. Many of Mr. Dalton’s neighbors in his hometown of Westfield, Massachusetts, were flooded out of their homes. Much like the stark view of socioeconomic divisions in New Orleans laid bare by Hurricane Katrina, that catastrophic event in Mr. Dalton’s community revealed deep inequities between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Seeing the devastation experienced by many of his classmates and their families impacted Mr. Dalton in a way that he could not name then. But it is the spark that he readily speaks to now that inspired him to build a career creating pathways to a promising future for students for whom opportunity may be in short supply.
A young person from a family whose income is in the bottom 20 percent nationally is eight times less likely to attain a four-year degree than a peer from a family in the top income level. That disparity urged Mr. Dalton to take action.
Mr. Dalton is founder and chief executive of CFES Brilliant Pathways—formerly College for Every Student—a national leader in helping underserved students become college- and career-ready. Since its start in 1991, CFES Brilliant Pathways has helped over 100,000 rural and urban students in 45 states and Ireland prepare for a successful and engaged life after high school. But that work doesn’t begin in 11th or 12th grade. Every year CFES educators, mentors, and corporate partners—Colgate Palmolive, Bain & Company, Transperfect, and many others—work with 20,000 K–12 students in 200 schools to help students cultivate their visions for what they can do in the world and their capacities for realizing those aspirations. Essential skills such as goal setting, teamwork, and adapting to change give CFES Scholars critical keys to thriving in elementary and high school, as college students, in their career, and throughout their lives.
Mr. Dalton began researching barriers to college readiness as a doctoral student at Harvard University. After attaining his Ed.D., in 1986 he joined the team at Middlebury College, heading up the college’s efforts to increase enrollment of students of color. Continuing his research with colleagues from UVM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he studied ways to overcome college-access barriers in disadvantaged communities. The results from that initiative were field tested in 10 schools in the southeastern U.S., with the number of college-bound students increasing by 50 percent in just three years.
That dramatically successful model served as the foundation for the non-profit that has become Mr. Dalton’s life’s work. In 1991 College for Every Student began operations, working with a group of rural schools in central New York. Since then, CFES Brilliant Pathways has worked in 1500 schools across the U.S., in both urban and rural communities, introducing students to college and career possibilities, providing professional development to educators, and helping students and families demystify the path to college and access the financial aid available. Of the 20,000 students served each year, 99 percent of CFES Scholars graduate from high school and 95 percent choose to attend college.
More than 200 graduates from high schools in the Bronx, New York’s most multiethnic and least affluent borough, are UVM Catamounts now thanks to a partnership forged by Mr. Dalton in 2000. Connecting key UVM leaders with Bronx high school principal Jerry Garfin, the program with UVM initiated by CFES Brilliant Pathways is considered one of the most significant school-college partnerships ever launched in higher education. Highly qualified prospective students begin visiting campus in their first year of high school, returning each year to meet with admissions counselors and to learn firsthand about educational, leadership, and co-curricular opportunities at UVM. Admitted students benefit from scholarships aimed at making the university more diverse; and the increased cross-culturalism deeply enhances the UVM community. Mr. Dalton takes a personal interest in the UVM community, as well, as the father of women’s lacrosse team head coach, Sarah Dalton Graddock.
This partnership with UVM is emblematic of the success that Mr. Dalton has achieved over the past three decades. In Vermont, CFES Brilliant Pathways has worked with over 30 schools, helping hundreds of students gain admission to and succeed at UVM, greatly contributing to the economic and social wellbeing of Vermont. A significant $11.6 million grant in 2018 from the U.S. Department of Education supports CFES Brilliant Pathways in targeting 2000 students in seven Adirondack-area schools that draw from low-income, rural communities. Executing a “full-court press” to get these students into college, CFES Brilliant Pathways is playing a key role in readying an educated regional workforce in the North Country.
Mr. Dalton’s goal is to help another 100,000 students become college and career ready over the next five years, and a growing body of CFES Brilliant Pathways alumni are now serving as mentors to the next generation of CFES Scholars in a cycle of support that keeps growing stronger. In April 2021, Mr. Dalton’s book: Rural America's Pathways to College and Career: Steps for Student Success and School Improvement was published by Routledge. That book, along with 2016’s College for Every Student: A Practitioner's Guide to Building College & Career Readiness, are both helping to carry the impact of his important work to a widening audience.
Through his dedicated work in developing academic and job opportunity readiness for promising students, Rick Dalton exemplifies the common good that can be achieved by working in partnership to advance college and career possibilities for young people in communities of all demographics.