By Jeffrey J. Selingo
Within the plethora of statistics that define American colleges and universities, one often stands out: whether someone earns a bachelor’s degree has almost everything to do with family income. To put it in stark numbers: children from families who earn more than $90,000 have a one-in-two chance of getting a bachelor’s degree by 24; those from families who earn under $35,000 have a one-in-seventeen chance.
The reasons for this divide are numerous and so too are the leaks along the pipeline into college and through commencement day. About a quarter of low-income students who score in the top 25 percent on the SAT or ACT never even go to college. Among those who score in the top 10 percent, more than half fail to apply to selective institutions as their wealthier classmates do. One out of every four top students never fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Like many other academics, Nicole Hurd was vaguely aware of these trends as dean of undergraduate research and fellowships at the University of Virginia, where she also taught religious studies. Then in 2004, she was invited to a meeting in Charlottesville with local business leaders by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which was interested in improving college access for low-income students. In the midst of the conversation about the problem the Cooke Foundation was trying to solve, another number stood out to Hurd.
“They told us that the average high-school guidance counselor had 369 students,” Hurd recalled. “It blew me away. The average student gets about 20 minutes a year with a counselor. No wonder only 53 percent of students in the state were going to college. We had major pipeline issues.”
In the parking lot after the meeting, Hurd realized that part of her day-to-day job was to help talented students at the University of Virginia apply for prestigious honors and fellowships after graduation. “I wondered what if we kept them here to do college advising work instead of sending them off to Teach for America and the Peace Corps?”
Hurd’s idea sparked the interest of the Cooke Foundation, and a year later, it provided $623,000 for a pilot program with 14 advisers. And with that, the College Advising Corps was born with a simple mission: to provide low-income high-schools with the kind of college counseling services often found in affluent schools.
The shorthand used to describe the College Advising Corps is often borrowed from its well-known counterpart: the Corps is Teach for America for high-school counselors. Still, there are significant differences between the two programs.
First, the advisers in the College Advising Corps—who commit to the program for two years—supplement existing counseling staff in high-need schools, unlike Teach for America where recruits fill open classroom teaching slots. Second, rather than cast a wide net for applicants like Teach for America does, the College Advising Corps takes new college graduates almost exclusively from its 25 partner colleges in 15 different states, ranging from the University of Missouri and the University of Michigan to Franklin & Marshall College and Davidson College.
“It’s a large lift to move into new high schools, and we can scale much faster with our partner colleges,” Hurd said. “They have skin in the game because the advisers are on their payroll, and we don’t need to find local directors and recruit boards every time we want to expand, the university provides that key staff and leadership.”
Partnering with universities also helps build trust with local high-school officials who are often skeptical of bringing in young and idealistic college graduates for short-term gigs to help solve long-term, deep-seated problems. The average college enrollment rate at the 531 high schools where Corps advisers are placed is only 50 percent. (Nationally, 66 percent of high-school seniors go right on to college the fall after they graduate).
Once embedded in the schools, Corp advisers encourage a college-going culture by creating new ways to connect and communicate with students and help them navigate the often confusing path to college with its myriad applications and deadlines. In 2013-14, 86 percent of seniors in the schools served by the Corps met with an adviser at least once.
So far, the efforts of advisers seem to be paying off, according to the program’s early results. For example, students are more engaged in the college-search process—they are more likely than those students who don’t meet with Corps advisers to take SAT and ACT prep courses, attend college fairs, and visit colleges. As a result, students who meet with an adviser are 30 percent more likely to apply to college, and 23 percent more likely to be accepted.
Such numbers help move the needle on a high school’s overall college-going rate. After just two years of the College Advising Corps being in a school, college enrollment increases by five percentage points, on average. In the schools where advisers have served the longest—some ten years—college enrollment has jumped by nine percentage points.
Plenty of high schools boast about their college-going rates, of course, but they rarely follow up to find out if their graduates end up staying in college and eventually obtain a credential. The College Advising Corp has found that high-school graduates who met with one of their advisers are more likely to return for their sophomore year of college compared to the national average (76 percent vs. 69 percent).
Hurd attributes her program’s success in retention to the fact that advisers are not solely focused on getting all students into four-year colleges. Too often and for too many Americans, the word “college” means a four-year degree. A two-year associate’s degree is often viewed negatively, although some students who go to a four-year college— and often end up dropping out— would be much better off starting or even finishing at a two-year college.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a 3.8 or a 1.8 [grade-point average]—there is a postsecondary opportunity for everyone,” Hurd said. “The idea is that we meet every student where they are. We want them to have a meaningful credential and the best match, so success can be completing a program at a vocational school, a community college, or a four-year institution, as long as it propels them forward.”
The issue of college access for low-income students has received plenty of attention in the last few years, thanks in part to several White House meetings on the issue that have featured the President and First Lady. Still, previous efforts at trying to solve the growing divide in who gets a degree in the U.S. have either failed or never moved beyond helping a small handful of students.
So how are Nicole Hurd and the College Advising Corps succeeding where so many others have struggled?
Hurd is a fierce advocate of documenting problems and measuring results with data, not simply anecdotes. Her commitment to measurement and accountability comes at a time when donors are constantly asking about their return on investment. When Hurd was first starting the Corps, Sarah Turner, a professor at UVA, told her that many new programs end up failing because they wait too long to measure their results.
“Sarah told me not to blow this by waiting to collect the data,” Hurd recalled. “As an academic, I loved data myself, so we collected it from day one.”
As part of the program, advisers accumulate data on a daily basis about the students they meet with and the results of those interactions. “When you have to report on your behavior on a daily basis it forces you to be more accountable, to ask if you did the very best you could,” said Eric Bettinger, a professor at Stanford University, who helps lead an annual assessment of the College Advising Corps.
According to Bettinger, a key reason why the Corps is successful is what he calls its “near-peer” model. Advisers are only a few years older than the students they are counseling, and they look like and have upbringings similar to those of their students. More than 60 percent of advisers are from underrepresented minorities, were first in their family to go to college, and were eligible for a Pell Grant.
“They have a proximity to the students that the usual counselor does not,” Bettinger said. “Students don’t want to have candid conversations about college with someone who is as old or older than their parents, but with the [Corps] advisers it’s like talking to a peer.”
Despite its initial success and all the national attention that has been showered on the subject of low-income access, one of Hurd’s frustrations continues to be that “we haven’t put a microphone on the issue for everyone. There are still too many students not being served.”
The College Advising Corps reaches about 140,000 students, Hurd said. “There are 1.4 million low-income students who need this advice.”
That’s why the Corps is experimenting with a virtual model to see if it can achieve similar results without the face-to-face peer interaction that researchers such as Bettinger like so much. Backed by a $10 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the virtual program uses alumni of the program to advise high-achieving, low-income students nationwide using video chat, text messages, and email to prepare them for college.
Indeed, as data from the annual evaluations demonstrate to Hurd and her team what techniques work in motivating students in the face-to-face program, they look for other approaches to leverage that success with other knotty problems facing low-income students.
Take the issue of “summer melt,” for example. Low-income students who place a deposit for college in the spring of their senior year of high school sometimes fail to show up on campus the following fall because they miss a financial-aid deadline. For those students, the summer between high school and college is unique—they no longer have ties to their high-school counselors but don’t yet have access to college counselors. Corps advisers continue to help students during the summer, mostly through text messages and other virtual means.
At the same time, the Corps has launched a pilot Parent Academy to counsel with parents of low-income students and is working with the College Board to provide transportation vouchers to students so that they can get to testing sites for the SAT.
“We’re not validating the model anymore,” Hurd said. “Now we’re creating new value.”