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College counselors on the front lines for low-income students

Kate Stringer | February 10, 2016

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LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23: A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. According to reports, half of recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees are finding themselves underemployed or jobless. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA. (Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Every high school counselor has that story. The student who thought her dream school was too far from home. The senior who wasn’t going to attend the prestigious university because of the price tag. The valedictorian who didn’t think he was cut out for college.

With the right support, these stories have happy endings. But for students in underserved areas of Los Angeles, a lack of information and resources can make entering college a seemingly impossible pathway for low-income and first-generation students.

The secret weapon for high schools taking these challenges head-on? Often it’s investing in college counselors. Counselors make the vital connections with college recruiters. They coordinate college visits and are the first ones students turn to when issues arise in the application process. They ease parent concerns and guide families through financial aid talks.

Yet with tight school budgets, some guidance counselors are being asked to take on dual responsibilities: high school academics and college prep. The counselors who get to focus solely on the process of getting students into college consider themselves lucky.

“People expect guidance counselors to do everything,” said Downtown Magnets High School college counselor Lynda McGee. Her school averages around 60 visits from college recruiters per year. “Because of guidance counselors’ other duties, they can’t stay informed and have to stay at school. My principal lets me go to (college recruiting events). I can meet (recruiters) face to face.”

USC helps cultivate these college advising positions in Los Angeles high schools through its Southern California College Advising Corps. The school places recent college graduates in underserved high schools to assist students with the application process. Seventy-eight percent of the students in these partnering high schools are socioeconomically disadvantaged and the first generation in their families to apply to college. USC also matches the diversity of advising staff and school population.

First-generation students aren’t always aware of the application process, face cultural barriers that make moving away to college difficult and might not envision themselves as college material, said Ara Arzumanian, program manager for USC’s advising corps.

“The adviser is helping them see (college) as something they can aspire to,” Arzumanian said. “It is a place where they can fit.”

Value of relationships

High school counselors have to develop relationships not only with students but with college recruiters. This collaboration grows more important as new high schools pop up and budgets for college recruiters shrink. Vince Lopez, director of admissions at Cal State LA, said more Los Angeles schools mean more demands for a recruiters’ time.

Moreover, recruiters are tasked with cramming hundreds of visits into a three-month window in the fall — the height of recruitment visits. It’s difficult to estimate the total number of high school visits, but Lopez said his recruitment team will see 114 high schools within its small corner of LA and attend 250 college fairs.

Local private schools like Loyola Marymount University will travel further for high school recruitment. Matt Fissinger, LMU’s director of undergraduate admission, estimates his team visits 500 high schools nationwide.

“The high school visit is a tried and true method of the recruitment strategy,” Fissinger said.

Prioritizing which high schools they can visit in one season varies with the type of school. But recruiters generally favor schools with a large number of prior applicants, strong academics and underserved populations they’d like represented in their schools. State and community colleges also prioritize their local area high schools.

“We’re working on student equity and access in terms of outreach and recruitment,” said Julie Benavides, vice president of student services at East Los Angeles College. The school strives for a constant presence in its 42 local high schools to answer student questions about the application process. “We hope that’s one of our major outcomes: that students feel connected with the proper resources.”

Personal connection

While other recruitment efforts like mailing lists and social media outreach are certainly cheaper, high school counselors and recruiters agree that a personal connection makes a significant difference in getting students interested in college.

“It’s a big deal,” said Suzy Chavez, counselor at Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School. Chavez said her school, with 146 seniors and a student population that is 95 percent low-income, receives between 15 and 20 visits from recruiters per year. “(Students) like having people present, seeing a different person and voice. Those individuals bring PowerPoint presentations, flyers and brochures we don’t have access to.”

To draw more recruiters, schools like Arleta High School that get 20 individual visits from college reps will partner with other area schools for college fairs, drawing 100 college representatives and 4,000 students and families.

The college recruiter’s presence is perhaps most important when it comes to representatives from Ivy League schools, who are looking to visit only a handful of students at each school.

“If they had a good interaction with an individual, that knowledge of that kid as a person rather than a name on paper can make a difference,” McGee said.

High school counselors agree that recruiter visits are one powerful piece to a large puzzle of cultivating student interest in college. But most important for low-income and first-generation students is making connections they can use during the process.

The most important thing “is the ability for two-way communication, whatever that looks like,” said Beth Winningham, college counselor at Arleta High School. She encourages students to call recruiters and admissions offices if they have concerns about test scores or financial aid.

Developing a college-focused culture beginning in ninth grade also helps first-generation and low-income students aspire to college. Many schools require all students to complete a college application as part of graduation requirements. They also partner with organizations like College Summit and the Posse Foundation, which encourage students through the application process and support them once they’re in higher education.

Overcoming the money barrier

Counselors agree that finances are usually the biggest barrier when it comes to getting students to consider college. Some don’t realize that the price tag is often much lower with financial aid and scholarships. Yet even when $40,000 tuition is reduced to $10,000 through financial aid, that gap is still too large for a family that makes $18,000 per year, McGee said.

“I always tell the kids that grades equal dollars,” McGee said, referencing scholarship money. “The higher your GPA, the less likely you’ll have that gap.”

Palisades Charter High School college counselor Ruth Grubb remembers a student who because of the price had initially decided to attend a less rigorous college even though she had gained admittance to a prestigious university. After Grubb encouraged her to call the university to check on her financial aid, the senior learned she was eligible for a full ride at her preferred school.

“The college might be two miles away, but the school could seem like a million miles away if they don’t realize this is for them,” Cal State LA’s Lopez said.

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