Can the Teach for America Model Work Better in College Advising?

This nonprofit places recent graduates in high schools that need help guiding students through the college-admissions process.

** ADVANCE FOR RELEASE MONDAY, JUNE 7, AND THEREAFTER ** In this photo taken May 22, 2010, Brownie Sibrian, waits to enter a Latino graduation celebration, sponsored by the Latino Student Assn. and MEChA, about a week before graduation, on the campus of Whittier College in Whittier, Calif. AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Sept. 25, 2013, 10:25 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a spe­cial weeklong series on in­nov­at­ive pro­grams and ideas that are im­prov­ing Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion.

Most teen­agers in Erica Eld­er’s ho­met­own of Bas­sett, Va., don’t think they’re col­lege ma­ter­i­al. The county’s me­di­an house­hold in­come is $33,600 — about half the Vir­gin­ia av­er­age — and only 11.3 per­cent of res­id­ents have a bach­el­or’s de­gree or high­er.

Eld­er gradu­ated from the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia this year, be­com­ing the first in her fam­ily to ob­tain a B.A. She prob­ably wouldn’t have ap­plied to UVa, a highly ranked flag­ship school, without the en­cour­age­ment of her col­lege ad­viser in high school. Des­pite less-than-stel­lar SAT scores, “he nev­er told me I couldn’t go to col­lege,” Eld­er says. “He just gave me hope.” This fall, she’s head­ing back to Bas­sett High to serve, in her ment­or’s shoes, as a mem­ber of the Na­tion­al Col­lege Ad­vising Corps.

The col­lege-ap­plic­a­tions pro­cess can be over­whelm­ing for any high school stu­dent. But for low-in­come minor­ity stu­dents like Eld­er with no gradu­ates in their fam­il­ies to guide them, it is of­ten para­lyz­ing. Many such stu­dents choose two-year schools by de­fault, or they de­cide not to go to col­lege at all. The Na­tion­al Col­lege Ad­vising Corps gives un­der­served stu­dents bet­ter in­form­a­tion about their op­tions by pla­cing re­cent col­lege gradu­ates in high schools across the coun­try to serve as col­lege ad­visers.

“The people who really got pummeled by this re­ces­sion were people with a high school de­gree or less,” says Nicole Farm­er Hurd, founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NCAC. High­er edu­ca­tion con­tin­ues to be a power­ful weapon against in­equal­ity: Low-in­come stu­dents who earn a four-year de­gree, re­ports the Pew Eco­nom­ic Mo­bil­ity Pro­ject, be­come nearly four times more likely to cata­pult in­to the top fifth of earners. Yet low-in­come stu­dents are 30 per­cent less likely to go dir­ectly to col­lege than their wealth­i­er peers, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics.

In the early 2000s, when Hurd was dean for un­der­gradu­ate re­search and fel­low­ships at UVa, she had an epi­phany. “We’re send­ing all these gradu­ates off to Los Angeles to teach or to Ecuador to do wa­ter puri­fic­a­tion,” she says. “If we can send them to L.A. and to Ecuador, surely we can keep them here in Vir­gin­ia to help kids to go to col­lege.” A $623,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Found­a­tion in 2004 al­lowed Hurd to re­cruit and train 14 col­lege ad­visers, all UVa seni­ors about to gradu­ate, and to in­stall them in tar­geted high schools across the com­mon­wealth in the fall of 2005.

Today, NCAC works with 19 part­ner in­sti­tu­tions and fields 334 ad­visers in 14 states, reach­ing more than 116,000 teen­agers. Sixty per­cent of NCAC ad­visers are first-gen­er­a­tion gradu­ates, are minor­it­ies, or are from low-in­come fam­il­ies. They’re all young­er than 25. Ad­visers are re­cruited, trained, and de­ployed by part­ner in­sti­tu­tions; four years after they part­ner with NCAC, in­sti­tu­tions bear 60 per­cent of the cost of main­tain­ing their pro­gram. NCAC, a non­profit fun­ded by found­a­tions and grants, provides the re­main­ing 40 per­cent of ne­ces­sary fund­ing.

Dur­ing train­ing, ad­visers learn about the ad­mis­sions pro­cess from fin­an­cial-aid and ad­mis­sions of­ficers on their part­ner cam­pus who coach them through the steps. They also tour oth­er col­leges and uni­versit­ies in the area, al­low­ing ad­visers to make con­nec­tions with ad­mis­sions staff. As well as a sti­pend, ad­visers re­ceive a $5,500 grant each year to­ward pay­ing off their stu­dent loans or for gradu­ate school.

Ad­vising Corps mem­bers help stu­dents de­cide how they want to con­tin­ue their edu­ca­tion and come up with a list of col­leges to ap­ply to. They help seni­ors get waivers to cov­er stand­ard­ized test fees, write ad­mis­sions es­says, and meet dead­lines; they help par­ents fill out fin­an­cial-aid forms; and they hold classroom present­a­tions to get un­der­class­men think­ing about col­lege op­tions. One corps mem­ber in Durham, N.C., changed all the name­plates in school to in­clude the col­lege af­fil­i­ation of each teach­er and ad­min­is­trat­or to re­mind teen­agers that they were already part of a col­lege-go­ing com­munity.

Corps mem­bers live in the com­munit­ies they serve and work closely with school ad­min­is­trat­ors. Many ad­visers, like Eld­er, are nat­ives who know how the loc­al school sys­tem works. Hurd tells ad­visers that they’re not on a mis­sion to “save” a strug­gling school: They’re there to listen.

The one-on-one at­ten­tion from a near-peer res­on­ates with stu­dents. In the 2010-11 aca­dem­ic year, stu­dents who met with an NCAC ad­viser were 25 per­cent more likely to ap­ply to col­lege than their class­mates at that school and 34 per­cent more likely to be ac­cep­ted in­to a four-year in­sti­tu­tion, ac­cord­ing to an in­de­pend­ent eval­u­ation. First-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents at NCAC schools were 53 per­cent more likely to re­ceive a col­lege ac­cept­ance let­ter than stu­dents at com­par­able schools without a NCAC pres­ence.

Pre­lim­in­ary evid­ence sug­gests that work­ing with a NCAC ad­viser also helps un­der­served stu­dents fin­ish col­lege. An eval­u­ation in North Car­o­lina found that stu­dents served by NCAC ad­visers who ma­tric­u­lated in­to the UNC sys­tem had an 88 per­cent chance of con­tinu­ing in­to their sopho­more year — high­er than the UNC av­er­age of 82 per­cent. Many of the stu­dents NCAC works with are used to see­ing friends or fam­ily mem­bers drop out of col­lege. Ad­vising Corps mem­bers are liv­ing proof to them that it’s pos­sible to cross the fin­ish line.

Near-peer col­lege ad­visers can­not re­place guid­ance coun­selors, but they can sup­ple­ment them, says Yolan­da Keith, pro­gram co­ordin­at­or of the Car­o­lina Col­lege Ad­vising Corps, the NCAC pro­gram headquartered at UNC (Chapel Hill). “There’s a lot that’s put on a coun­selor’s plate,” she says, from sui­cide pre­ven­tion to help­ing stu­dents re­gister for classes. As a res­ult, coun­selors are of­ten spread too thin to truly fo­cus on in­di­vidu­al stu­dents through the col­lege de­cision and ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess. Na­tion­ally, the stu­dent-coun­selor ra­tio at pub­lic schools av­er­ages 470 to one.

NCAC isn’t about to change edu­ca­tion dis­par­it­ies overnight. But by giv­ing col­lege-ready stu­dents a hand up, it’s hop­ing to foster a col­lege-go­ing cul­ture where none ex­is­ted be­fore. When, dur­ing her train­ing, Eld­er went back to Bas­sett High to shad­ow the ad­viser cur­rently placed there, she in­stantly con­nec­ted with stu­dents. “They were really ex­cited, and really glad to listen to me,” she says. It was like they were think­ing: “If she can go off to col­lege, we can go off to col­lege, be­cause she was one of us.”

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