A College Adviser in Every School

Poor kids need college admissions help the most but get it the least. This injustice can be solved without breaking the bank.

Tucked amid high-rise public housing projects between the bottom of Chinatown and the elbow of the East River is a tidy five-story brick building that houses University Neighborhood High School, a New York City public school. Nancy Corona spent the last two years working there as a member of the College Advising Corps, a nonprofit organization that places recent college graduates into high schools to help kids with the college application process. (For now, think Teach For America, but college advising.) When I visited, in early April, she had a meeting scheduled after school with a senior I’ll call David. Though bright, David had been missing classes—Corona suspected he was depressed—and was at risk of not graduating. Corona braced herself for a tough conversation.

But David had good news. He had been making it to school more regularly in the morning, despite a long commute from the Bronx. If he kept it up, he had a good shot at graduating. He had even signed up to attend community college in the fall. The problem was this: his dad was refusing to submit his tax information so David could apply for financial aid. Without that aid, there was no way he could afford to go.

David lived with his adult sister. Their dad lived with his girlfriend. He stopped by often to check in, David said, but their relationship was tense. “He was distrustful about me actually applying to college and getting accepted,” he told Corona. “He said, ‘Why should I do this for you if you’re not going to do what it takes to graduate?’ I didn’t know what to say to that.”

If you have kids in high school, I’m guessing your role in the college process looks a little different. If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, there’s a good chance you’re a member of the upper middle class; you almost certainly have a college degree. You’re probably pretty invested in getting your children into the best possible school. Maybe you’re helping with their essays, driving them to campus visits, or paying for SAT prep.

Most kids like David don’t have that advantage. Seventy-three percent of students at University Neighborhood High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly half are Hispanic; most of the rest are black or Asian, including many recent Chinese immigrants. The odds are that they are the first in their families to go to college (called “first generation” in education circles). This means that their parents, while wanting the best for their kids, may not have the expertise to help them navigate admissions and financial aid.

So that job falls to the school guidance counselor. But most schools don’t have a Nancy Corona. In fact, the United States does a terrible job supplying guidance counselors for public school students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum student-counselor ratio of 250 to 1, but only three small states—New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming–—meet that number. According to the most recent public data, the national average is 482. Some states are particularly bad: California has 760 students for every counselor, Arizona 924. With such huge caseloads, even the most motivated counselor is lucky to get a few hours of one-on-one time all year with the average student.

The statewide ratio numbers alone understate the severity of the problem. First, they conceal disparities between rich districts and poor districts within states. Second, even where ratios are the same, counselors in poorer schools have more to deal with—violence, hunger, homelessness—than those in richer ones, who have time to go over application essays and letters of recommendation. According to a 2015 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, counselors at public schools spent 22 percent of their time on college counseling, compared to 55 percent at private schools. Put simply, the kids who get college admissions help don’t need it, and the ones who need it don’t get it.

The good news is that the problem is far from insurmountable. Studies of the College Advising Corps suggest that providing dedicated college counselors to disadvantaged kids can move the needle on what should be the most urgent priority in American higher education: getting more low-income, first-generation, and minority students into college. And a few local and state governments are beginning to recognize the importance of well-funded, well-managed school counseling.

The question is whether more political leaders will wake up to the long-term value of investing in positions that are among the easiest to cut when budgets are tight. As James S. Murphy noted in the Atlantic last year, counselors don’t rate highly in public perception of where to invest in education. A 2016 national survey asked people what the top spending priority should be if taxes were raised to fund public schools. Spending on counselors came in last, chosen by only 6 percent of respondents—behind school supplies. Only thirty states require that high school students have access to counseling; the seven most populous states aren’t among them. Fewer than half of the thirty set a minimum counselor-student ratio, and those that do set it far higher than the recommended 1 to 250.

Providing more counseling is no panacea. Inequality in postsecondary education is a complex problem that starts before kids are even born. But establishing a robust advising program is relatively straightforward to implement, pays clear dividends, and attacks one of the most unfair parts of the admissions process—the random luck of being born to parents who went to college.

The typical guidance counselor actually does three jobs: behavioral and emotional counseling; academic support (helping students choose classes and so on); and advising on college or other post-graduation plans. Asking one person to do all three tasks is pretty weird—a bit like having your therapist look over your résumé. In poorer districts, especially, the behavioral-emotional side of the job can be overwhelming, as counselors help cope with the myriad nonacademic stresses that can arise from poverty. Add in the miscellaneous responsibilities they’re often saddled with, like exam proctoring and administrative duties, and little time is left for the nitty-gritty of college applications. In tacit recognition of this fact, most districts don’t even include postsecondary advising when they evaluate counselors. In response to a 2012 survey by the College Board, only 39 percent of counselors said they were held accountable for their students’ college application and acceptance rates.

Rich high schools generally don’t ask counselors to do it all. Elite private schools like Collegiate, in New York, or Sidwell Friends, in Washington, D.C., have stand-alone college advising departments with deep connections to admissions offices. Public schools in wealthy districts, where high property taxes pay for more resources, likely have at least a counselor or two on staff focused exclusively on college. According to the 2015 survey, “[Thirty] percent of public schools reported employing at least one counselor (full- or part-time) whose exclusive responsibility was to provide college counseling, compared to 73 percent of private schools.” And don’t forget that many well-to-do parents spend thousands of dollars on private admissions consulting.

Then you have public schools like the one I went to, in upper-middle-class Westfield, New Jersey. It’s the kind of town where some kids drive BMWs and some ride the bus, but most kids’ parents went to college and almost everyone graduates. Westfield High School doesn’t have a dedicated college office, but the guidance counselors have manageable caseloads (about 200 students each) and experience with the ins and outs of the college application process.

My counselor, Liz McDermott, was exceptional—but I would have been fine without her. My mom and dad, like most of my friends’ parents, went to selective colleges themselves and stayed up to date on things like the difference between early action and early decision. They weren’t going to let me blow it. When I called McDermott a few weeks ago, she said parents have gotten even more involved than when I was a student at Westfield, in the early aughts. Of course, even in affluent towns, plenty of children come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have problems that demand the attention of counselors. But McDermott was only half joking when she said that much of her job now involves getting parents to back off and let their kids take more responsibility. The schools where guidance counselors are the most helpful with college applications are also the ones where they’re the least necessary.

The United States does a terrible job supplying guidance counselors for public school students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum student-counselor ratio of 250 to 1. The national average is 482 to 1.

Things are very different in places where most students’ parents didn’t go to college. That’s one of the insights behind the College Advising Corps, which was founded in 2005. The organization partners with universities to place recent graduates—“near peers,” in education jargon—in high schools where most students are low-income, underrepresented minorities, or the first in their family to go to college. Most of the advisers, by design, come from a background similar to that of the students they work with. They supplement the existing counseling staff, and are officially on the payroll of the partner university wherever they work; their salaries come half from the university and half from philanthropic and public sources. (In New York City, the partner university is NYU.) Their job is strictly postsecondary advising: helping kids get into the best program they can, whether it’s a four-year university, two-year community college, or vocational training program. The program has a major presence not just in urban areas like New York City, but also in rural districts, where many high-achieving students may never have considered applying to an out-of-state school. Since its founding it has grown to serve nearly 200,000 kids a year.

“I don’t know what I would do without Nancy,” said Kathleen Hernandez, one of the two guidance counselors at University Neighborhood High School, referring to Nancy Corona, the College Advising Corps adviser. Hernandez is comfortable advising kids about college, but other priorities often get in the way. She listed a few: dealing with pregnancies; stocking snacks for kids who don’t get enough food at home; helping kids process the death of a family member. “They’re trying to get along with their day,” she said of her students, “but they’re constantly having to be resilient because they have no other choice.”

Corona grew up in Queens and graduated from Lawrence University, in Wisconsin. At UNHS she worked out of an unused classroom converted into an advising office. When I visited, there was a constant churn of students coming in during off periods for advice—on filling out confusing forms, interpreting financial aid offers, registering for placement tests.

It’s easy to overlook just how complicated the college process is—and the poorer you are, the more baroque it gets. As a group of seniors huddled around her desk during a free period one afternoon, Nancy and the kids spoke in a jargon-laden shorthand that reflected many hours spent wrangling with the demands of applying for financial aid.

“Even with an EFC that’s not zero, your tuition should still be covered by Pell and TAP,” she told a boy who had gotten into Sarah Lawrence College but was worried about affording it. He nodded knowingly, but I had to check my notes later: that’s “expected family contribution,” federal Pell Grants for low-income students, and New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program, an additional grant for New York residents to go to in-state schools. If you have teenage children, imagine them trying to keep track of all this—plus the difference between tuition, room and board, activity fees, and so on—on their own. That’s the situation many first-generation college-bound students are in.

“While I don’t have a degree in counseling, I do have technical mastery over the little details,” said Corona. “How to register for the SAT; where and when should you register; giving the student the time and attention to say, ‘Let’s look at Google Maps to find the right place for you. Are you sure you can wake up at 7:45 in the morning? Do you have a Metrocard? Will you be able to afford the fare to go on a weekend?’ ”

The College Advising Corps isn’t the only group trying to close the counseling gap. College Possible, an AmeriCorps organization, has been placing recent graduates in high schools for two-year terms since 2000. They provide after-school assistance and focus both on admissions and on ACT and SAT prep. In Washington, D.C., the non-profit DC-CAP, established in 1999, has a college adviser in every high school.

But the CAC is particularly well positioned to answer the most important question: Does it work? DC-CAP, because of its very comprehensiveness, doesn’t have a control to compare its students to. College Possible’s advisers work with small cohorts of students who had to apply for the program, meaning there’s self-selection; kids who apply are already more likely to make it to college. The CAC, on the other hand, is open to the whole school, not just students who apply and are chosen. That, plus the program’s size and narrowly defined focus on post-secondary advising, makes it easier to measure its impact.

Which the organization does, constantly, with help from Stanford researchers. One study found that in New York City, where the CAC has a large presence, the rate of college enrollment rose by an average of 16 percentage points in the two years after a school got an adviser. Crucially, CAC advisees stay in college at around the national rate, despite being disproportionately at risk of dropping out based on their demographics—perhaps because the program emphasizes sending kids to schools that have solid graduation statistics.

A second Stanford-based study, a randomly controlled trial of the CAC’s programs in Texas, found modest but positive results, with a crucial, if predictable, caveat: the impact depends on school size. At big schools, the effect of an adviser was almost negligible, while at smaller schools, an adviser increased the rate of college enrollment the fall after graduation by 2 to 3 percentage points overall. (That could explain some of the New York numbers: high schools there are very small.) The researchers noted particularly “strong significant effects for males, Hispanics, and for low-income students.” The increase, they concluded, would more than pay for itself through the greater earnings and tax base that accrue from more students getting degrees.

So there’s evidence that supplying dedicated college advisers can pay dividends in terms of low-income, first-generation, and minority kids getting a college education. But the research also suggests that it only works if the number of advisers is high enough. So the next question is: Can it scale?

One Stanford admissions essay asks applicants to write a note to their future roommate. Samit (not his real name), a junior in Tampa, Florida, wrote about his favorite fast food restaurant (Checkers), his favorite author (Nicholas Sparks), and his feelings on texting (ambivalent).

Not gonna cut it. An unironic appreciation for fast food and lowbrow fiction won’t catch the eye of a Stanford admissions officer. But buried in Samit’s essay was a one-line reference to doing volunteer work to prevent child marriage in Bangladesh, where his family is from, each summer. Write more about that!

Someone probably would have told Samit this if his parents were plugged into the college process, or if his school counselor had time for him, or if he could afford private admissions consulting. But Samit’s parents moved back to Bangladesh when he started high school; he lives with his older brother, a rising senior at the University of South Florida. His guidance counselor, he said, is too busy to help.

That’s where I came in. Samit and I connected through UStrive, a web-based advising platform that pairs adult volunteers with high school students who are seeking help with the college application process. I created a mentor profile in June, when enterprising juniors were getting their affairs in order for applications this fall. I filled out a short profile and was pretty quickly matched with a few kids, including Samit. The platform includes a video chat, but Samit and I did a voice call. He told me about his academic background: an elite SAT verbal score, a solid math score, and good but not spectacular grades. His top choice was Yale, and he was targeting other Ivy League schools and Stanford; if those didn’t work out, he figured he would go somewhere in-state, like the University of Florida or University of Miami. He would need a full ride no matter what.

Samit was motivated and self-aware enough to know he needed help with his essays. What he didn’t know is that there are plenty of selective schools that are easier to get into than Yale but offer better financial aid, and academic support, than the University of Miami—a private university that costs even poor families around $25,000 per year after financial aid. Samit and I agreed that part of our goal this summer would be to add some of those colleges to his list.

Adding more college advisers to working-class high schools could be a powerful solution to educational inequality. It is relatively straightforward to implement, pays clear dividends, and attacks one of the most unfair parts of the admissions process—the random luck of being born to parents who didn’t go to college.

The UStrive platform has a lot going for it. It can connect kids and adults anywhere in the country, regardless of what local resources are available. It pulls data from the federal government’s College Scorecard to allow students to see, for example, what the real cost of a given school would likely be based on their family finances. But it also has clear limitations. Some are technological and will likely be fixed in an upcoming update. But more important, I wasn’t really sure how to use my time with the students I was mentoring. The curriculum materials are vague, and there’s no training. It seems like a lot to ask of a volunteer to figure out how to be a college adviser on the fly. (A user experience manager told me the next update will include efforts to make the resources more useful and self-explanatory.)

After a few weeks of mentoring students on the UStrive platform, I came away with the sense that it’s an excellent resource for already-motivated kids who need help with specific tasks. But I felt skeptical that an online mentoring program could come close to filling in the gap that an in-person adviser could. Even the kids I matched with, who had taken the initiative to sign up, had trouble showing up for our appointments consistently. They’re teenagers, after all, and no one was forcing them to talk to me.

For the past two years, the College Advising Corps, College Possible, and a few other organizations have partnered with CollegePoint, a Bloomberg-funded web advising project aimed specifically at high-performing, low-income kids. An evaluation is pending. Nicole Hurd, the CAC’s founder and CEO, hopes the project will help determine the strengths and limitations of web-based advising. She distinguished between “transactional” work, like editing an essay or helping a student look up a certain deadline, and “relational” or “inspirational” work, like convincing a student he’s college material. “That kind of stuff is never going to be done by a nudge, it’s never going to be done by a text,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out the combination of in-person and technology to be effective.”

Abdul Aziz is a CAC adviser at Digital Arts and Cinema Technology High School in Brooklyn. He immigrated with his family from Bangladesh as a child and grew up in East New York, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, before making it to Franklin & Marshall College. Short and handsome, with sleepy eyes and a low-key saunter, Aziz could pass for an especially cool high school senior. When I visited, it was first period, and juniors were straggling into the auditorium for a presentation by a recruiter from the State University of New York system. They had taken the SAT the previous day. “Shakeem!” Aziz called to a surly kid sitting too far back, waving at him to move up. “Good morning.” Shakeem sauntered over and gave Aziz a fist bump. “How’d the test go?” Aziz asked. “It went okay.” Another boy walked up and offered a handshake. Abdul countered with a fist bump. “You know I don’t do that,” the boy said. Aziz retorted, “I don’t know where your hand has been.”

Aziz saw building that kind of rapport as central to the job. During the academic year, he often stayed after school to hang out and play games with students. His desktop background was a picture of him with members of last year’s senior class, taken on one of the many college visits he organized. He could tell me what each kid was up to now; almost all were in college. Aziz also had to be dogged with students’ parents. They wanted the best for their kids, he said, but tended not to be engaged in the college process. He had to call some parents a dozen times before they filled out their part of the federal financial aid application forms.

It’s hard to imagine doing what Aziz does over video chat.

But can you scale up something that relies on face-to-face contact? It’s not as outlandish an idea as it sounds. In New York City, with new support from the city’s department of education, the CAC is more than doubling its reach this fall, going from twenty-three schools to fifty, and plans to double again next year.

What would it take to go truly national? The CAC’s Nicole Hurd estimates that there are about 1.4 million low-income students in the country who fit the need profile her organization targets, based on U.S. Department of Education data. To serve them at a 1-to-200 ratio would require 7,000 advisers, about ten times the number the CAC currently provides. At a salary of $25,000 per year, that would cost $175 million annually in adviser pay, by far the biggest program cost. (Of course, it might be hard to find that many idealists willing to work for so little money.)

Traci Kirtley, the chief program officer of College Possible, did a similar calculation. “We think it would cost about a billion dollars to serve every low-income student with a coach like this,” she said. College Possible coaches work with a smaller group of students than CAC advisers, making the cost per student much greater. But even a billion dollars isn’t that much money on a national scale. As Kirtley pointed out, it’s about what the federal government already spends per year on less cost-effective college access programs. Now, the Trump administration has proposed slashing even that spending, so it’s unrealistic to expect more federal investment anytime soon. But a future presidential candidate interested in low-cost, high-impact college access interventions could do worse than proposing a few hundred million dollars in federal funding to expand evidence-based programs like the CAC that supplement school counseling staffs.

Colorado has made the most aggressive wide-scale public investment in beefed-up school counseling. In 2008, the state legislature established a grant program that provides funding to add counselors to lower-income public schools. Unlike the CAC, these counselors aren’t focused specifically on college advising. Still, some early evaluations are promising: according to a 2016 report, the rate of postsecondary enrollment in districts that received funding went from 31 percent in 2011 to 44 percent in 2014 while the statewide rate remained stable. The program also has had a measurable effect on dropout rates, leading the state department of education to calculate that, given the burden dropouts place on government services, it saves the state much more than it costs. Whatever the specific model, it’s hard to argue against making a more serious investment in college advising for the high schoolers who most need it.

It took Nancy Corona a few days to work up the courage to call David’s dad. As a young woman herself, not quite two years out of college, she still got nervous about this kind of conversation. But eventually she got him on the phone and convinced him to submit his tax information so David could complete his financial aid application. In June, she texted me a picture from the school’s graduation ceremony. In it, she stands beside David, who wears a cap and gown and a shy smile. “Graduation was today and his father was there to see it!” she wrote.

In the fall, David will start at LaGuardia Community College. Success is far from certain: LaGuardia has a low graduation rate, and David can’t rely on his parents to support and guide him. But it’s a start. A college degree remains the best path to upward mobility for kids like David, and without Corona he probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Gilad Edelman

Gilad Edelman is an editor of the Washington Monthly.