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Society’s great problems are complex, uncomfortable and require innovative solutions. The chronic shortage of college counseling resources in our high schools is no exception.
Nationally, our public schools average 471 students for every counselor. This shortfall causes disproportionate harm to low-income, first-generation college students, who need the most help navigating the admission process and obtaining financial aid.
Practically speaking, there’s an enormous wage premium for going to college, as well as many other benefits—including better long-term health outcomes, greater civic engagement, the opportunity to pursue advanced degrees, and the satisfaction of developing one’s talents.
Yet one study shows that each year, nearly 25 percent of high-achieving, low-income students who aspire to college do not enroll — the very students who could see deeply pronounced lifetime benefits from getting a college degree.
Another study by Stanford researcher Caroline Hoxby shows that among these same lower-income communities — especially rural ones — tens of thousands of star students fail to apply to the well-resourced colleges with high graduation rates for which they are qualified.
Of course, there are many reasons for these troubling phenomena, from misplaced government priorities to limited financial aid to lack of experience with college in many families.
America needs a public/private Marshall Plan to re-invest in our young talent — the future of our country — but that’s either very far off or a fantasy.
In the meantime, what happens to today’s high school juniors and seniors for whom education is the strongest engine of opportunity?
Fortunately, there are real heroes stepping up — a growing network of nonprofit college access organizations using innovative means to get college knowledge to students who want and need it, including College Summit, College Track, College Match, College Spring, College Possible, Matriculate and OneGoal.
Consider the College Advising Corps (CAC), created by Dr. Nicole Hurd in 2005 as a pilot program at the University of Virginia.
This academic year, CAC advisers helped more than 160,000 low-income students apply to college.
Because Franklin & Marshall College is one of 23 college partners for the program, I’ve seen one chapter—the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps (PCAC)— up close and can attest to its breaking down the many barriers to college.
Under the leadership of program director Bob Freund, PCAC is continuing to grow and reach more Pennsylvania high school students each year.
For example, at Bald Eagle Area High School near Penn State University, adviser Liz Middleton has taught students how to explore their options beyond the local universities.
At Donegal High School in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, Brady Roberts has inspired students to pursue affordable programs that fit their interests — especially at liberal arts schools.
And at Lancaster’s McCaskey High School, Patricia Gonzalez has walked immigrant students and their families through the intricacies of the application process.
There’s scale to this work and definitely a compelling return on the investment of the admittedly small salaries the advisers receive for their two-year commitments.
I love the way this work changes lives.
Take Liz’s student Natasha, now a senior at Bald Eagle. With Liz’s mentorship, plus her encouragement to attend a summer preparatory program at a college, Natasha has applied to a dozen great schools, including Princeton, Yale, Dickinson and Gettysburg.
Then there’s Brady’s student Alex, whose family had thought that community college was his most practical option. Now, Alex is finishing his first year at Franklin & Marshall College.
And then there are Patricia’s students, of whom many are undocumented. With her guidance, many of these students have learned about, gone after and earned scholarships they never knew were available to them.
As they go on to careers in public policy, law, teaching or school counseling, the CAC advisers bring firsthand knowledge that that they can become a catalyzing force for change.
This is the kind of American vision President Kennedy articulated in 1962: “We need [people] who can dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’”
In that spirit, it’s heartening to see that some private philanthropies and public school systems are investing in this burgeoning network. Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative has been a great friend to this work, as has the College Board’s Access to Opportunity initiative (disclosure: I serve as a trustee of the College Board).
I’m especially impressed with the CollegePoint initiative, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is partnering with the College Advising Corps and The College Board to build a network of advisers.
Some would argue that these college access efforts merely place Band-Aids on the deep wounds of our country’s ailing education system.
After all, they don’t reach every child. They don’t solve poverty. They don’t reform curricula or teacher certification or school funding formulas. They don’t increase today’s flattening financial aid budgets that increasingly are directed towards students who don’t need help paying for college as way of recruiting partial tuition-payers.
All true critiques, but they don’t help us make progress. We who believe in America have a moral obligation and a practical imperative to invest in today’s students — and the College Advising Corps is one group that shows us how to make an impact with creative solutions.
Efforts like these will allow us to develop young people fully and thus strengthen our country.
Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something, especially when that “something” is investing in tomorrow’s college students and the idealistic counselors who believe in them.
Daniel Porterfield is the 15th president of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.