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First-generation students
College Advising Corps adviser Carmen Macias, right, explains yet another form to a Torres High School student in East Los Angeles. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

BELL, Calif. — Applying to college is an overwhelming process that most teenagers only complete with an abundance of one key adult resource: nagging.

“The battle is that students need help with every step of the process,” said college counselor Frank Marquez of Bell High School near Los Angeles.

With few exceptions, 17- and 18-year-olds tend to be terrible at meeting deadlines, finishing tasks without reminders or putting themselves out there to ask questions that might make them look dumb. All of these skills are needed to successfully register for and take college entrance exams, write personal statements, research schools, complete applications, pay fees, fill out financial aid applications, apply for scholarships, and any number of other tasks needed for kids to get into and enroll in college.

826 — Student to counselor ratio in California.

And yes, applying is just one step towards a college degree. After that, students need to enroll, register for classes, show up to office hours … the list goes on. The process is hard enough for middle-class students who can draw on their parent’s experience; it can be completely overwhelming for kids who are the first in their families to try it. And many just give college a pass. A University of Chicago study of Chicago Public School seniors found that only 59 percent of students who aspired to a four-year college degree even applied.

But it turns out just getting students to apply could be one of the simplest solutions to getting more kids from low-income families to go to college. Another Chicago-based study, this one by the American Institutes for Research and Northwestern University, found that students with an active college coach were 17 to 20 percent more likely to apply to college than those without.

Related: Rich school, poor school

So counselors like Marquez can be the make-or-break adult in the life of students who are the first in their families to try to make the leap from high school to college.

Shari Sevier of the American School Counselor Association concurs.

“Now that she knows me well, she expects me to do things on my own, which is great, but not great, because I’m not ready for that.”

“For our students who are first generation, low-income, I think it’s critical that we spend one-on-one time with them and walk them through the process,” Sevier said.

In short, they need to be nagged, just like middle class teenagers, whose college-educated parents are more likely to have the tools and the time to stay on top of their kids’ college applications.

But Marquez is one of just two district-hired college counselors at Bell, a 3,200-student school. And even two dedicated college counselors at a Los Angeles Unified District school is a luxury, he said. The district average is 412 students to every one counselor, according to a recent story in the Los Angeles Daily News. And many of those counselors are responsible not only for their student’s college planning, but also for their mental health and class schedules. (Bell has mental health and academic counselors too.)

Related: Plenty of credits, no diploma

First-generation students
Reyna Valenzuela, standing, waits on hold for one Bell High School student while answering a question for another. Valenzuela is a member of the Southern California College Advising Corps, based in Los Angeles. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

The average in the state of California is even worse: 826 students to every one counselor as of 2012-13, the most recent school year for which data is available. The state ranks second to last after Arizona. Only three states — Vermont, Wyoming and New Hampshire — meet the School Counselors Association guideline of 250 students to one counselor. The national average is 482 students to every one counselor.

Yet, a college degree is still the most reliable path out of poverty. Of kids who grow up in poverty, those who earn a college degree are five times more likely to leave the bottom 20 percent of earners than their peers who don’t, according to a 2013 report by Pew Charitable Trusts, a think tank. College graduates who grew up in poverty are also 2.5 times more likely to make it to the middle 20 percent of earners than their non-graduate peers.

Those figures have recently caught the attention of a growing number of advocates who are sending private advisers into public high schools to help students apply to college.

“The battle is that students need help with every step of the process.”

Bell is one of those high schools.

Reyna Valenzuela is Bell’s new college adviser. She’s not a certified counselor. She’s a recent college graduate and a member of the Southern California College Advising Corps. (One of the many funders of the national College Advising Corps is The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is also among the numerous funders of The Hechinger Report.*) And she acts a whole lot like a college counselor: Valenzuela spends her days in the college counseling office at Bell supervising student applications, interpreting financial aid forms and tracking down answers to student questions about everything from immigration status to residential housing fees.

“She’s well-trained,” Marquez said of Valenzuela. “She knows how to help them with SAT, ACT, college applications, FAFSA, Dream Act, college financial aid forms. So it’s another full-time person to assist students directly, which is what we need.”

And her age and high energy mean students gravitate towards her, Marquez said.

“I like Miss. Reyna’s method,” said senior Andrea Ramirez, 17. “Now that she knows me well she expects me to do things on my own, which is great, but not great, because I’m not ready for that.”

Ramirez is headed to Humboldt State in northern California next fall. She’s nervous about going so far away, but says her parents support her even if her mom is pretty nervous too. She’ll be the first in her family to attend college.

“I regret not applying somewhere close,” Ramirez said, “but then I thought about it and I thought: I should try this on my own.”

Completing the college application process on her own would not have been realistic though, Ramirez said. She’s grateful to Marquez, Valenzuela and her advisers from another college access program, AVID, for helping her get through it.

The College Advising Corps, which boasts 450 advisers in 500 high schools in 14 states across the country, does not have a corner on sending outside advisers into public schools. Federal programs like Upward Bound have been doing similar work for decades and newer programs like 10,000 Degrees in the California Bay Area and uAspire are all taking slightly different approaches to providing more help to students hoping to be the first in their families to earn a college degree.

“It’s not necessarily new work, but it is certainly expanding work,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, an organization that helps coordinate the efforts of groups focused on increasing college access. “The attention to the demand for degrees and the great need of students out there has definitely multiplied the associations and the organizations doing this work.”

Related: New program steers bright poor kids to top universities and colleges

Not everyone thinks bringing outside college advisers into schools is a good idea. Sevier of the School Counselor Association worries that placing recent college graduates in counseling offices with just a summer’s worth of training could lead to trouble.

Counselors, she said, have advanced degrees in counseling and are legally responsible for the advice they give. A four-year degree in any given subject does not qualify someone to walk into a school counseling office and give advice, Sevier said. A better plan would be to hire fully certified counselors with smaller caseloads, she said.

17,000 — Counselors California would have to hire to meet the recommended ratio of 250 students to every one counselor.

That would be a heavy lift in California. To get to the recommended student to counselor ratio here, districts would have to collectively hire more than 17,000 new counselors.

And there might be something to the idea of having outside advisers working in schools, said Ara Arzumanian, program manager for the Southern California College Advising Corps.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone on a high school campus who just has one job,” Arzumanian said. “Because we’re an outside partner, we are able to be very defensive of that adviser’s time and say, ‘They are only going to be doing college access to the exclusion of everything else.’”

Valenzuela says she is a good match for the students she’s helping. Though she said the neighborhood in East L.A. where she grew up was very different from Bell, both are areas in which lots of young people aspire to be the first in their families to attend college. That was Valenzuela’s dream too — one she achieved — so she knows what it takes.

“Sometimes it can be really overwhelming and I understand if you don’t have that support at home, getting in and meeting deadlines can be really complicated,” Valenzuela said. “Just being able to help fill that gap for students is something I enjoy doing.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California schools.

*Clarification: This story has been updated to include information about The Jack Kent Cook foundation, which is a shared funder of the national College Advising Corps and The Hechinger Report.

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