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College Prep

Keeping college-bound students on track requires vision and an early start.

There was a time when guidance counselors helped students choose and apply to four or five colleges, after which they could count on at least two acceptances, ideally from a first-choice school and a backup. Now counselors encourage students to apply to more schools to increase their odds of getting into their top choice and more than 30 percent of students apply to seven or more colleges. Thus, developing a strategy for admissions these days seems more like hedging bets at a roulette table than simply picking a top choice and a backup.

According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) report

The State of College Admissions 2006, while the most elite colleges in the United States are becoming more selective-with 73 percent of U.S. colleges reporting an increase in applications from the previous year-most schools are still accepting seven out of 10 applicants. And what colleges have been seeking-in order: grades, SAT scores,and GPA-hasn't changed much over the last 15 years.

Given the larger talent pool generated by an increase in applications, the most elite schools can practically engineer the composition of their freshman classes, says Jim Conroy, chair of Post-High School Counseling for New Trier Township (Ill.) High School District. And when the average ratio of applications to admissions officers is 395 to 1-and Harvard is accepting only roughly 9 percent of applicants-students need more than good grades and high SAT scores to stand out.

Advisors will tell students that "special something" is ephemeral at best. Belonging to the Spanish club and volunteering at an organic farm look good on an application, but spending a month in Nicaragua building houses or launching a new neighborhood recycling program might be more attractive to admissions officers at the most competitive schools. But nobody knows for sure what's going to garner a second look when all candidates look equally strong.

"Most kids want the same 10 percent of top-tier schools: Duke, UNC, Vanderbilt," Conroy says. "We have great schools in this country, but more students are trying to get into 'name-brand' schools, when there are so many great ones out there. We have to remind parents and students that college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won."

Meanwhile, the increased competition has been a boon to state universities across the nation, many of which offer honors programs to appeal to top students, not to mention tuition rates that private schools can't match, Conroy adds.

Trends in Advising

Given this climate, guidance counselors are needed more than ever, particularly in public schools, where it's not uncommon for a single counselor to serve the therapeutic counseling and postsecondary advising needs of more than 300 students

Everyone agrees that college advising offers a significant benefit for students. But when just 25 percent of a counselor's time goes to college counseling-in private schools, that number is around 58 percent-most students can't rely on a single counselor to meet all their needs. And when there are cuts in the education budget, school counselors are among the first to go.

As a result, parents with the means to pay are increasingly outsourcing advising services-22 percent of 2006 college freshmen at private colleges used private counselors to assist them with the admissions process, according to Katherine Cohen, president of educational consulting company IvyWise, as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education. From writing support in crafting the perfect personal statement to charting a multiyear plan for getting into Harvard, private counselors individualize academic support in a way that most school counselors can't.

At the New Trier district, more than half the faculty participate as advisors in a model advisory program that pairs students with the same advisor from grade 10 through graduation, Conroy says. Instead of hiring generalist counselors, social workers are on-site to provide therapeutic counseling, while teacher-counselors meet with individual students for 30-minute advising meetings each day throughout the year, he says.

Most districts can't afford an advisory program like the one at the New Trier district, but that doesn't stop some from trying. For example, Bend-La Pine (Ore.) Schools has adapted the best elements of private counseling to better assist students in their career and college planning by developing college advising programs that enlist local volunteers. Others, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, are redistributing responsibility for college advising by getting students more involved in the process of finding and developing interest areas that will shape their academic choices and building college prep advising directly into the curriculum.

Starting Early

Beginning this fall in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, with more than 340,000 students and a counselor-student ratio of 1 to 485, college advising starts in eighth grade. More than 23,000 students will participate in the first rollout of the Eighth Graders Go to College program, a two-day exploration of life on a local college campus under the guidance of counselors from the district and participating colleges.

Deborah Montilla, administrative director for the division of student services in Miami-Dade County, explains that the program attempts to expand guidance counseling to an earlier, crucial point in students' education-that transition point between eighth and ninth grade when, for many, truancy increases and grade point averages dive.

"We don't expect students to be locked into anything." -Barbara Millard, instructional supervisor for guidance and  counseling, Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Another force behind the program is the Florida legislature, which now requires ninth-graders to select an academic emphasis before attending high school. As a result, advising for high school and beyond has had to start at a much younger age. That's why day one of the Eighth Graders Go to College program highlights the activities available at the high school that students will attend; day two focuses on academic readiness and college life.

Still, decisions about interest areas and in-school academies may be premature for some students who need more guidance with their decisions. Barbara Millard, Miami-Dade's instructional supervisor for guidance and counseling, explains, "We don't expect students to be locked into anything. But we liken college and academic success to preparing for a long trip-and there are many different routes to get there-because not every student is going to tune in until junior year. High school is just part of the journey."

Millard adds that the district is starting these programs now, rather than waiting until junior and senior year, to expose students-particularly those who may not be thinking about postsecondary education and may be among the first generation in their families to graduate from high school-to the opportunities they have upon graduation. As Miami-Dade's early advising program takes shape, the goal is that students will be more prepared to optimize the district's College Assistance Program (CAP), which places a dedicated college admissions counselor in every high school in the district to advise and help students with the applications process during their senior year.

Private Counseling in Public Schools

In the Bend-La Pine district, where once only a handful of students received an honors diploma, now 10 percent of students graduate from a rigorous honors program that includes four years of English, math, and science, at least two years of foreign language, and five additional courses at the AP or college level.

As the number of students looking for a college-bound curriculum has increased, so too has the need for college preparatory advising. "We have a lot of students who contract privately for college advising," says Superintendent of Schools Doug Nelson. "Our goal is to bring that type of service to all of our students."

That type of service includes a range of programs that involve teachers, guidance counselors and community volunteers. It begins by administering the ACT to all eighth- and ninth-graders to identify interests and aptitudes, information that can then be used to guide advising decisions. Two of Bend-La Pine's fi ve high schools are piloting a program that will pair juniors with trained mentors from the community who hold advanced degrees; for example, working professionals from a range of fields who understand the application and admissions process will meet with students during the school day to give advice, answer questions, and help students with their admissions applications.

Also helping students on their way to postsecondary education is Oregon's graduation requirement that stipulates all students must have experience outside the classroom, in a career pathway, to graduate. For example, a student interested in pursuing engineering in college might spend a day shadowing an engineer in his or her work. A student considering business school could participate in a field project that would have him or her working on real-life problems in an office or at a work site.

Such programs complement Bend-La Pine Schools' college advisory program, which builds planning and preparing for postsecondary education into the curriculum. "We learned early on that a studentcounselor ratio of 400 to 1 doesn't allow people to advise," explains Vicki Van Buren, executive director of high school programs for Bend-La Pine schools. "The student advisory program allows us to expand advising services throughout the school. College advising happens between students and teachers."

Thanks to funding from a federal learning communities grant, students in grades 9 and 10 are grouped so that they are in classrooms with the same cohort of teachers for core classes that include English, social studies, and health. In grades 11 and 12, students are grouped by their interest areas, which are the foundation for their career pathway experiences, and their teachers advise them on topics ranging from writing an application essay to networking and how to pay for college.

Counselor as Knowledge Broker

Since the advising services that most students need cannot realistically be met by a single counselor, guidance professionals need to function more as knowledge brokers than information gatekeepers, advises David Hawkins, NACAC's public policy director. "Counselors operate more effectively when they bring services into the schools and put students in touch with those services and organizations."

Successful advising programs are taking a management approach to advising high school students. "Rather than gophers who will track down information, counselors put parents and students into contact with the right resources," Hawkins adds.

The Price of Admission

But according to NACAC, guidance counselors report that "lack of information about financial aid" and access to enough financial support discouraged nearly 40 percent of students they know from applying to college. It's also often the first reason students don't think a college education is possible.

"Rather than gophers who will track down information, counselors put parents and students into contact with the right resources." -David Hawkins, public policy director, National Association for College Admissions Counseling

When it comes to financing a college education, counselors agree that the longterm financial benefit of a college education more than pays for the loan used to achieve it, says Hawkins. "And kids receiving free and reduced lunches need to know they will be eligible for [federal] Pell grants" for low-income students. Beyond making general information available, though, most counselors don't have time to work with families to help them make the best financial decisions.

Moreover, recent scandals involving conflicts of interest between student-loan providers and college student-aid officials have muddied the already confusing process of applying for financial aid. However, according to Marcia Weston, director of College Goal Sunday operations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the scandal does not impact high school guidance counselors since they weren't in a position to encourage families into going with specific lenders. Still, Weston adds, financial aid advisors haven't done enough to make sure information is easily understood and reaches the right audience.

College Goal Sunday programs are free weekend events where college-bound students and their families receive help filling out financial aid forms. Now in 36 states, the program has adopted grassroots marketing strategies to improve in communicating financial aid options.

And the man behind it did so by looking at where his target audiences gathered socially. Franklin Davis, higher education awareness program coordinator for the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, aggressively marketed the free event in a low-income community where students may not have had access to financial aid resources and information. Davis asked barbers and beauty shop owners to hang posters and chat with clients about the event; he involved church deacons and Sunday school teachers, by having them announce the event and discuss it with their congregations. It worked: 90 percent of College Goal Sunday attendees were low-income minority students, most among the first generation in their families to graduate from high school.

As more districts generate creative solutions to meet their students' advising needs, and as financial aid information and assistance makes its way through targeted channels that flow directly into communities of need, college advising can move productively away from the single-counselor model to collaborative approaches that involve local colleges and community members, teachers, and students.

Kristen Kennedy is a teacher of writing and composition theory to college students and a freelance writer in Seattle.