Achieve College Education (ACE)

Reversing the college delivery system to give working adults a solid opportunity to go to college.

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Written by


  • Yes, I fulfill all of the eligibility criteria.

Initiative's representative name

David Castro. President & CEO

Initiative's representative date of birth

October, 1970

Initiative’s representative gender

  • Man

Which eligible market are you based in?

  • USA

Where are you making a difference?

Southeast PA including Philadelphia.

Website or social media url(s)

When was your organisation founded?


Focus areas

  • Reskilling and upskilling the workforce

Project Stage

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

Yearly Budget: How much capital do you need to accomplish your proposed project?

  • $1k - $10k

Organisation Type

  • For-profit

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed

Since 1995, I-LEAD has been training grassroots leaders living in impoverished and under-served communities. During many of our kitchen table discussions that took place after the training workshops, participants would talk about their aspirations, and those aspirations usually included the desire to go to college. "Well," I said, "Why don't you just go to college?" "I work fulltime during the day." "I don't have childcare." "Man, I can't figure out how to fill out all of those forms." "I tried the community college but I just didn't feel right, it was like I was invisible walking around those buildings." "Buses don't run out to the suburbs."

2. The problem: What problem surrounding employability or financial capability are you helping to solve?

Educational underachievement traps residents in under-employment or low wage jobs. Welfare programs provide support but do not effectively address the educational achievement gap. Local leaders often focus attention on K-12 system reform. K-12 educational progress fails to serve the increasing undereducated adult population that remains behind. Economic stagnation increases.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Rather than requiring students to travel distances to programs designed to serve only the strongest learners, our program employs trusted, embedded community partnerships to serve numerous small cohorts of learners directly within their neighborhoods Whereas traditional programs meet the needs of educational bureaucracies through strongly centralized delivery to very large cohorts, ours meets the needs of underserved residents near their homes, with predictable schedules, small cohorts, and client-centered success services. Using a social enterprise model, we have created a widespread, scaleable network of faith based and social services centers. With our network, we recruit nontraditional learners and provide full curricula on-site in the neighborhood, including every aspect of the application and admission process. We directly deliver coaching, tutoring, social support and counseling at the local sites where students take classes. Through our cohort model, students give one another powerful validation and support. These combined strategies allow our program to achieve unprecedented graduation and retention rates (+80%).

4. How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solving the problem?

Those struggling to transcend poverty often lack basic knowledge about higher education: how to apply, access financial aid, choose a major. Stark cultural differences between college campus life and life in low-income communities prevent people from even imagining how college achievement could change their lives. Poverty can also limit travel and schedule flexibility in ways that prevent attendance at remote campus locations. We have built a program that tears down walls, takes college into neighborhoods where disadvantaged people live and work, and opens a transformational pathway to higher education achievement. Our organization has implemented a unique educational delivery system that removes barriers to higher education.

5. Employability: how is your organization or project teaching people to develop the skills that they need to survive in the future job market?

Curriculum content is relevant to the demands of employers. Students acquire oral and written communication skills, information technology, analytical skills, team building and leadership which are essential for 21st century employment. ACE has developed a classroom culture and a teaching style targeted to adults. Non-credit remedial classes are offered alongside of credit bearing courses to help students efficiently develop college skills.

5a. Please describe which future-oriented skills your organization is focused on fostering and how you have measured / plan to measure progress

The first two post-secondary courses in the ACE program are Effective Dialogue and Negotiating, Building Relationships, and Resolving Conflicts. These courses teach the skills employers claim are deficient among members of the current labor force: oral and written communication, active listening, problem perception, critical thinking, analytical skills, social perception, team building and personal effectiveness.

7. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

There is no one using a similar model where college goes into neighborhoods instead of students traveling to a centralized campus.

8. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

During its 15-year lifespan our program has achieved extraordinary measurable impact. Our active enrollment has scaled from 20 to over 1000 students, with a strong 80% retention rate. Our graduates demonstrate the economic success enjoyed by college graduates nationally: increased employment and income, social integration and civic engagement. Promotions. New jobs. Higher incomes. Bachelor’s Degrees. These are the ACE program’s measurable results. But there are other results not described as easily with numbers. Graduates repeatedly describe personal transformations more important than the credentials earned.

9. Financial Sustainability Plan. Can you tell us about you plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

Our program employs a scalable and sustainable social enterprise model that actually generates increasing revenues as the program grows. Our strategy is simple but powerful: our educational partners share tuition revenue with our community partners in order to enable local program delivery. Using public tuition grants, loans and local scholarships, our students are able to complete college with very low debt levels that represent their own investment and commitment to acquire the extraordinary economic benefits entailed in higher education achievement.

10. Team

Our CEO, David Castro, is both an Ashoka Fellow and a Kellogg Fellow. David has developed a collaborative leadership model that promotes full engagement of staff and community partners in visioning, goal-setting, problem-solving, innovating and driving toward results. This model informs the non-hierarchical organizational structure that the ACE program employs. Prior to launching ACE, Castro spent 10 years conducting leadership training

Help Us Support Diversity! Are you a member of an under-served , under-represented, or marginalized group in your country of residence? (yes/no) (this question is optional – if you choose to fill it out, the response will not be shared with your fellow contestants)

  • Race
  • Gender

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Email

Evaluation results

1 evaluation so far

1. OVERALL Evaluation:

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2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

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3. Does this entry have SOCIAL IMPACT?

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4. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

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6. FEEDBACK: Highlights

IMPACT POTENTIAL: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) – and you have a concrete plan for future impact. You have specific tools for measuring impact. - 100%

QUALITY OF INNOVATION: You have a great understanding of the problem, have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful solutions - 0%

FINANCIAL AND OPERATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work operationally and financially in the present and future; your plan is specific and you value sustainability. - 0%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: You have a good plan on how to activate changemakers and empower them to innovate through your product or programming - 0%

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7. FEEDBACK: Areas for Improvement

IMPACT POTENTIAL: make sure to provide specific instances of your social impact (or how you plan to measure impact) – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, the main activities/products, and provide evidence of (or plan for) impact evaluation - 0%

QUALITY OF INNOVATION: make sure to describe how your solution is unique and innovative – it is helpful to include the research you have done on past solutions and how your solution is different from (and/or builds upon) these. - 0%

FINANCIAL AND OPERATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY: make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 0%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: make sure you describe your plan for how to empower others to become changemakers through your programming, service, or product - 0%

WRITING STYLE. Try to be concise, descriptive, and specific. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Crystal Binghams

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