At Risk Kids and the College Game

Summary: Low income kids often are first in their family to contemplate college, and so lack the fund of family college information taken for granted by middle and upper class students. Their back up option, the guidance of their high school counselor, is limited because of the many duties common to the counseling position in today’s schools, but supplemental systems and creative solutions can bridge the gap to some extent. (Note: This is an expanded version of a “guest opinion” piece that appeared in the digital version of the Seattle Times recently.)
Suppose you are a low income student, son or daughter of parents who themselves did not attend college. You have been diligent as a student, and as your senior year in high school approaches, you think about going to college, as you vaguely know you should, but who do you turn to for help? You have friends whose own parents went to college. You are bewildered and intimidated that these friends seem not only to know how to go about the application process, but also what course of study they will follow, and how they will pay for it. To whom do you turn?
Well, there is always your friendly high school counselor.
In fact, high school counselors do advise students about college, which includes career planning and financial aid information. But the help is mostly via classroom presentations — not enough and too impersonal to intercede vitally in our hypothetical low income student’s college planning. Such a student needs more 1:1 intervention throughout her high school growth, but her counselor does well to spread himself in a relatively thin fashion over classrooms of students on a periodic basis.
Those students whose more privileged families have already channeled them toward higher education and have fostered career paths are the ones who most profit from such presentations, while those who more profoundly need the information tune out or at best face confusion because they lack the framework of expectation and personal infrastructure upon which to hang what they are being told.
So the real question is how to “college advise” low income kids whose personal family experience has not prepared them to take advantage of the limited exposure their high schools can provide them in the run up to the years of higher education.
Moreover, from an educational perspective “college advisement” is really the culmination of development that originates in elementary and middle school with timely acquisition of skills, a birth of educational thirst, and the ability to visualize academic and vocational attainment – in short, the ownership of strategies and habits that have always undergirded success in any enterprise. Giving a kid who has not followed such a path all along the wherewithal to fill out a college application is a low percentage endeavor.
Because some families for complex reasons cannot or have not been able to forge such tools in their children, it has fallen to schools as society’s representatives to do so, not just to salvage the kids, but also to further society’s best interest.
Outside of the family, much remedy can only be through the building of personal relationships with kids at each level of schooling, where teachers and counselors historically have encouraged faith in self and built expectation of accomplishment upon it.
The gods of testing, currently ascendant, have diverted considerable time from such informal tutelage by teachers and counselors alike, and budget cuts have further vitiated that traditional role.
I am reminded of the story of one elementary counselor who spent an outsized portion of her time monitoring a troubled student for whom a specialized school would have been more appropriate, but was not in the cards, because budget constraints had made the more intensive setting too expensive. With her time circumscribed toward one student, the counselor’s ability to attend to the needs of more normal students suffered.
Sometimes on the high school level relatively late inspiration can be communicated. I think of a son of Mexican immigrants, challenged by various staff members, who opted into an Advanced Placement class because he now recognized that was a way to prepare for a college future. He knew it would be a struggle, and it was, but in the end he forged new confidence in himself and his rising academic trajectory.
Today high school counselors strive to survive, as each year seems to bring at least one new responsibility on top of already too many others, which in turn are done hurriedly and often inadequately. Many struggle with morale issues. Most are in the game because of a desire to help kids. Yet too often counselors, and certainly high school counselors, largely have become administrative custodians of data and managers of process: credits and graduation requirements; authorization for credit recovery; registration for courses and schedule changes; the management of legal learning disability procedures; Running Start authorizations for juniors and seniors. Not to mention responding to all the assortment of problems, circumstances, and crises present in a case load of well over 400 high school students.
So what to do? Some would argue our use of resources has reached an imbalance; we devote too much time and people power to testing that might be used in other ways. The kind of mentoring needed is people intensive, and hence expensive. Surely more counselors on all levels, some dedicated primarily to the nurture of the learning careers of low income kids, and improved teacher/student ratios would be steps in the right direction.
More intensive work around careers and college thinking has sprouted in some curricula on all levels. Linkages in these curricula to counseling for targeted low income kids might accentuate the curricular work.
There are human resources less expensive than counselors or teachers, or funded through related budgets. For example, I have been intrigued by the work of City Year/Americorps volunteers in encouraging school attendance in Seattle schools, as reported by the Seattle Times. Young college graduates mentor foster kids through a Treehouse program in the Seattle area. Adults mentor students in an innovative program in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
A recent Seattle Times review of college advising for high school students (“Outside guidance helps students get in”) acknowledges the beleaguered status of high school counselors as they struggle to meet the need, and tells the story of a couple of supplementary programs that help low income students make the transition to higher education. The College Advising Corps uses both Americorps money (again!) and grants to hire young adults, themselves college graduates, to mentor high school students in the mysteries of college application.
Another program, Rainier Scholars, identifies promising low income students in middle school and structures around them a variety of supports designed to make them ready for Ivy League and other elite universities. Still other supplemental efforts target low income parents to make them aware of financial aid and application opportunities as early as eighth grade.
One informal study of allocation of high school counselor time found that as much as a quarter of what they encounter does not require counseling skills. For example, much graduation credit management and program planning could be handled by a detail competent Instructional Aide, who would be much cheaper than a full counselor, and who would thereby liberate counselors to more substantive student empowerment work.
Creative resource management of these sorts would not eliminate the need for counselors, but could liberate counselors to more substantive empowerment work with disadvantaged students.
These realities and options underline the State Supreme Court’s finding that the Washington Legislature underfunds public education. Pay it forward, or surely we will pay more at a later date.

This entry was posted in At Risk Students, Schools and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s