Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Just raising Michigan to the national average in the percentage of students to go to college could add $6.8 billion to the state’s economy.

Megan Battersby is a high school senior with a lot of options. She’ll be going to college next fall, along with most of her classmates ‒ 80 percent of Ann Arbor Pioneer graduates go on to some kind of post-secondary education, as do nearly three of four high school grads across Washtenaw County.

Like many other teens in Ann Arbor, Battersby, 17, doesn’t end her school day when the final bell rings on the Pioneer campus. She has attended an ACT prep class to raise the score she’d send to universities. She has a tutor who is on the faculty of the University of Michigan helping her improve her foreign language skills in Mandarin. She attended a three-week neuroscience camp last summer at Brown University. For three years, she’s had regular consultations with a college advising service, which helped her pick universities that would be a good fit, craft her Common Application essay and videotaped mock admission interviews.

Without help, said Megan’s father, Graham Battersby, navigating the college application system would have been “a nightmare.”

Fifty miles away, India Graham, 17, lived that nightmare. The Lansing Eastern High School senior had no ACT prep class and no idea how to apply to college. Although her test scores were in the middle 50 percent of scores of accepted students at several four-year public universities, she fretted she wouldn’t gain admission, and didn’t know how to apply for financial aid to pay for it if she did. The majority of students at her urban, high-poverty school who enroll in college go to Lansing Community College, which is walking distance from the high school; only one in seven enrolls in a four-year college; and only one in 15 completes a normal, full-time course load on any type of campus within a year.

“It’s intimidating,” Graham said. “My brother went to L.C.C. (Lansing Community College) for a year, and dropped out. He’s 22 now and working at Chuck E. Cheese.”

Michigan’s low-income high school graduates, as well as many of the state’s rural grads, enroll in college at lower levels than their wealthier, suburban peers. Those who do enroll are less likely to attend a four-year school, and more likely to drop out before earning a degree.

Some of that gap is because of differences in academic achievement that correlates stubbornly to family income. But there is another, less visible cause, one that involves physics tutors and strategically groomed extracurricular activities.

This is the after-school gap – an admissions-driven arms race that widens the already-broad college access gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Closing that gap is vital to Michigan’s economic future. Michigan ranks in the bottom half of states in adult college attainment. Michigan would need 287,328 more adults to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher just to reach the national average. Those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average 70 percent more than those with a high school diploma ($1,108 per week versus $651 per week).

Just raising Michigan to the national average in college attainment, then, could add $6.8 billion to the state economy.

The children of high-income families and college graduates are already enrolling in college in high numbers; to increase Michigan residents’ college attainment, the state needs to get more children of low-income families onto campuses.

Who enrolls, and who doesn’t

Across the state, 62 percent of high school graduates enroll in a two-year or four-year college within six months of graduation. But that figure masks a sobering disparity between low-income students and their wealthier classmates. Four in 10 economically disadvantaged students enroll in college, compared to almost seven in 10 students not who are not economically disadvantaged. At four-year universities, low-income students enroll at half the rate (24 percent) of higher-income students (47 percent).

Your odds of going to college also depend to a depressing degree on your zip code. In wealthy Washtenaw County, 73 percent of high school graduates enroll in a two-year or four-year college, the highest rate in Michigan; rural Cass County, in Southwest Michigan near the Indiana border, has above-average per-capita income, but its high school grads step onto campus at the lowest rate in the state (47 percent).

Ionia County, with one of the second-lowest per-capita income among intermediate school districts in the state, has the third-lowest rate of college enrollment.

That’s not a coincidence. The low-income and rural students most in need of college guidance are the least likely to receive it.

In Michigan, there is one school counselor for every 706 students, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. In high schools, the rate is estimated to be about one counselor per 500 students, according to the Michigan Association of School Counselors. That’s a ratio that leaves counselors with little time for college advising, even if they have the background to do it – school counselors are not required to have any training in the college selection process.

“The trend in high school counselors is directed more at scheduling and standardized tests,” admits Bob Colby, superintendent of the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District.

Those who can afford it and who live in metropolitan areas are increasingly turning to outside experts. The Independent Educational Consultants Association, one of several organizations of college advisors, estimates that the number of consultants has tripled nationwide in the past five years, with about 7,500 advisors helping students prepare for standardized tests and build resumes.

The association’s website attributes the growth to an increasingly complex and competitive college application process, higher university costs that raise the stakes on getting accepted to the right school, and overworked school counselors.

MORE COVERAGE: Putting a college advisor in every Michigan high school

Grooming resumes

More than half of low-income students who score above the 90th percentile on the ACT or SAT don’t apply to a selective university.

Timothy Parros sinks into a leather chair, taps a keyboard and a spreadsheet of colleges appear on a screen on the wall. Next to each college is the likelihood of a high school student client of Parros College Planning being admitted. Parros changes the student’s ACT score from 27 to 32, and the chances of the student being admitted to elite liberal arts school Claremont McKenna College in California changes from possible to likely.

“People come to us when they’re juniors or seniors,” when it’s almost too late, said Parros. “We like to see families begin in eighth or ninth grade.”

The Ann Arbor advising service is booming, with business doubling in the past five years.

“We have kids build a resume,” said Kim Parros, Tim’s wife, who works with families and manages marketing for the service. “We do mock interviews that are videotaped, so we can study them. We help fill out the FAFSA (the federal financial aid form used by most colleges to determine eligibility for aid).

“Getting into school now is a strategy. We like to build a strategy in ninth or 10th grade. If a student says I like Duke or Harvard, we’re going to groom that child differently from a student whose goal is to go to MSU.”

That grooming doesn’t stop with the $1,295 paid to Parros for a bundle of college-prep services. One client family prepping their son for college has written checks not only to Parros, but to an ACT tutor, a math tutor and a science tutor. That student also Skypes each week with a University of Michigan biology professor to talk about what the teen is learning in his high school biology class.

“In Ann Arbor, you can go to Craigslist right now and find your choice of tutors,” Tim Parros said. “It’s an expensive game, and if you don’t know how to play, you’re going to lose.”

Brandy Johnson disagrees. While admitting that fee-based services can be a plus for those who can afford it, Johnson, the executive director of Michigan College Access Network, stresses that families can – and do – find ways to get into college without going broke.

“Michigan is blessed to have 28 open-enrollment community colleges, and 15 public universities that range in competitiveness,” Johnson said. “There are plenty of students who get into college by hard work,” with little or no fee-based services.

Johnson knows, though, that there needs to be more.

‘They don’t know what questions to ask’

The achievement gap between rich and poor is large, and growing.

Even when low-income students excel academically, they don’t go to the same colleges as their equally accomplished, wealthier peers. More than half of low-income students who score above the 90th percentile on the ACT or SAT don’t even apply to any selective universities, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University and Harvard University; only 8 percent apply to colleges in a similar fashion as high-achieving, higher-income students.

That matters because low-income students who enroll in non-selective schools often pay more than they would at selective schools, and drop out at a higher rate. For example for a student with a family income of under $30,000, the average net cost of attending Harvard is less than $4,000 – about the same as many community colleges. Harvard has a 97 percent graduation rate.

Today, the lowest-performing high-income kids have better odds of graduating college than the highest-performing low-income kids.

Robert Putnam, Harvard public policy professor and author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” uses data to show that the achievement gap between rich and poor has grown, partly because kids from middle- and high-income families have access to tutoring and college prep resources, while, as Midland Intermediate School District Superintendent John Searles says, children of low-income families “don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what questions to ask.”

Midland County, home of Dow Chemical, has one of the state’s highest rates of college enrollment for high-income students, and one of the lowest rates for low-income families. The Midland Community Foundation is coordinating efforts to try to reach out to low-income students. It’s tough sledding.

“In my experience, these are kids who have the talent but don’t have the understanding,” said program coordinator Valerie Gerhardt. “For them, college is like going to a foreign country and not knowing the language.”

Learning that language takes a guide. “The kind of prep and advising young people get can dramatically impact where they go to school, and if they go to school,” said Sonja Brookins Santelises, Vice President of K-12 Policy and Practice at the Education Trust, an education reform advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Getting college advising to those who most need it is a policy challenge Michigan needs to address, says Patrick O’Connor, a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

As assistant dean of college counseling at exclusive Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, O’Connor makes sure that his students know how to play the college enrollment game. But he knows most Michigan students don’t have the same advantages.

O’Connor lobbied for legislation that would have required high school counselors to receive training in college guidance. The bill died in the lame duck session in December.

“Given the many challenges our children are facing, with parents working two or three jobs and the demand on our school systems, it’s too easy for our kids to get lost without realizing there are choices out there,” O’Connor said

‘Should be available to everybody’

Megan Battersby of Ann Arbor Pioneer has been accepted to five colleges and is waiting to hear from two more. Her brother, a freshman in high school, is already thinking about what classes and extracurricular activities he needs to get into a good university.

Father Graham Battersby knows his family is lucky to be able to access in-depth college guidance. “We’d have been ignorant without it,” he said. “You don’t realize what you don’t know.

“It (college guidance) should be available to everybody,” Graham Battersby said. “It should be free, in fact.”

If she’d graduated a year ago, India Graham of Lansing Eastern High School might be headed to Lansing Community College. Instead, she’s been accepted to Pace University in New York City, a school she had never heard of until getting help from a Michigan College Advising Corps member assigned to Lansing Eastern High School.

The program, which is transitioning to a new name next year, AdviseMI, places recent college graduates in low-income schools and rural schools to try to increase college enrollment plans among students. The advisors do not replace high school counselors - in fact, participating high schools must agree not to reduce counseling staff.

“Every school in the state should have one,” Graham said.

They don’t. There are 40 College Advising Corps members in a state with more than 600 high schools.

“We’re not saying every student should go to college,” said O’Connor, of Cranbrook. “But every family should have the information to make an informed decision on life after high school.”

Support for this project was provided by The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.

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Kristin M
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:20am
Michigan e-Library offers free online resources for all Michigan residents including great tools for High School students, At, students of all income levels can find resources to help select, prepare and pay for college including the best pre-planning college guides, practice exams, and scholarship information.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:34am
Great work, Ron. We have a lot of work to do. This helps us focus on critical needs in raising degree attainment levels.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:20pm
My view from a person that grew up with parents that never went to college and was in a poor or very lower middle class family in a very bad neighborhood (our house has been razed by the government). It was harder back then but not impossible to find out what you needed to do - all you needed to do was call the local university. We did have a phone in the house - one phone. Today it is much easier with internet access, high school counselors and all kinds of other help available. Any high school student not astute enough to perform this very minor bit of pro-active effort probably should not be going to college. We have to quit doing everything for people that are too lazy to do for themselves.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 1:45pm
Pretty harsh view fella. You sound like you have walked the walk, but somehow you missed the lesson it provided. If a kid has been in an environment where he/she has not been valued for intelligence or capabilities, it's pretty hard to know how to be proactive. In other words, such a kid needs a helping hand, even a push. He may not at all recognize his own potential. Give such a kid a break; he does not value himself the way you did yourself.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 9:48pm
Barb, Larry's remarks may sound harsh to you, but maybe he has learned the lesson you aren't listening to. You seem to feel college is all about "intelligence or capabilities" and the reality maybe that is it about desire and persistence. College seems to require a lot more self discipline, sacrifice, and persistence than high school. I would offer that the primary reason kids don';t graduate from college isn't due to lack of "intelligence or capability", rather it is a lack of desire to do the work necessary to learn and graduate. You, like Mr. French, seem to believe success is admission to college. I see success as the graduation and application of what has been learned. What was more important to you, "intelligence or capability" or desire (sacrifice and persistence), to achieve your academic success?
David waymire
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 7:48am
Back in the didn't cost as much because the state support it more. Back in the day, if you didn't go, you could get a good paying auto factory job. Neither is true now. Good Counselors can help overcome barriers, real and imagined, so kids get in...and can then prove their worth.
Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:17pm
David, I don't disagree with what you say. It seems that it is all about the students deserving other people's money to pay for their education. I wonder why there is so little interest in the student's responsbilities for their education. I wonder why there is so little interest in graduating and what it takes to graduate. I wonder why there is so talk about how students can minimize the cost and the amount of loans they need. I wonder why there is so little interest in the selection of degrees and so little interest in the jobs those degrees will prepare them for. Why do think the talk is all aobut what the students deserve and not about the students responsibilities for their own education?
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 4:14pm
Great article! I was a student teacher in the Saranac Schools in Ionia County. There was no full-time career counselor but just a teacher that spent 15 minutes with seniors in their final year. I remember speaking with a quiet senior after a class and asking her about her college plans. Although she was a straight A student, she had no plans for college. She had received no career counseling at all and was planning to follow her boyfriend to Texas where he was planning to sign-up for the army. She came from a low-income family with a step-father and no college graduates. I believe career counseling should begin as a freshman if not earlier and involve all a students' teachers.
Charles Richards
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 6:11pm
Mr. French has not thought this through completely. There are two issues involved and they are, to some degree, mutually exclusive. He begins by pointing out that Michigan would be better off if it had a larger stock of human capital (more college graduates). Then he points out that there are glaring differences in the ability of high and low income students to get into selective colleges. But he never makes clear which we should emphasize. Or, what mix of the two we should pursue. Is it necessary to give all students equal access to elite, selective colleges? The Economist recently ran a couple of interesting charts that related income of college graduates to the selectivity of colleges. For graduates in engineering, science and business, there was no relationship between selectivity and income. There was such a relationship for humanities graduates, but the slope of the line of best fit, while significant, was not substantial. Thus, while a sheepskin from an elite college may have substantial ego value, the extra expense and trauma of being accepted at a top school rather than a second tier school may not be worth it. Certainly, from the community's standpoint, it is more efficient to secure a low-income student's admission to a decent school rather than an elite institution. So there is a conflict between society's interest and that of the student. Mr. French obviously wishes to promote the interest of the low-income students. He says, "to increase Michigan residents’ college attainment, the state needs to get more children of low-income families onto campuses." Of course, any decision is perfectly legitimate, but it should be made deliberately and consciously, with full awareness of the benefits and costs. And it is true, at least from the standpoint of the nation as a whole, that we should not let talent go to waste. Georgia offers scholarships whose value is scaled to a students performance in high school. There is another issue that Mr. French failed to address. More than thirty percent of Michigan's college graduates leave the state. What is the point of creating more college graduates if they don't stay? Mr. French tells us how much Michigan would benefit from more college graduates. He says, "Just raising Michigan to the national average in college attainment, then, could add $6.8 billion to the state economy." He says nothing about the trivial matter of keeping graduates here. Why wouldn't it be more efficient to create a more vibrant economy that would attract the educated people we need?
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 2:28pm
Glad to see the western UP fared so well in your statistics - right up there with Washtenaw Co. Previous statistics show it as a low income area. Hmm.
Leah F
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 11:56am
Plucking a few outliers, ex. the lone student at the public with the 98 percentile score, to support your motives is juvenile. The reality is that the public schools in the State of Michigan are in shambles. Something like 75% of the students aren't even college fit at high school graduation. The low-income you feel are so underserved are receiving high school diplomas when they have the capacity of an average upper-middle class 8th grader. Pushing more students on campuses who can't get off twitter long enough to Google how to apply to college will do nothing more than shovel more federal grant/loan dollars into community and directional college coffers and inevitably increase loan default rates. It's easy to spin the "moving the needle." I can lure a dozen low-capacity kids to sign up for community college, and then boast that the dozen are "IN COLLEGE!" Of course I won't share that they all dropped out a year later and have defaulted on their students loans and can't find employment with ruined credit and no work experience. It's pure wasted productivity. Fix the public primary and secondary schools and put the kids already forever behind in a factory; they're not fit for a college classroom. They'll never "catch up."
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 6:13pm
Planning for a post high school life begins in Kindergarten with career exploration and then becomes serious with the state mandated educational development plan (EDP). Every student in the State of Michigan by law is required to have this EDP completed by the end of 8th grade that plans out their career interest and lays out a road map to post secondary attainment. Most schools do not complete it in 8th or 9th grade. The students decide in 11th grade after taking the ACT exam they want to go to college and then they are ill prepared. Our nonprofit Uplift, Inc. hosted Automation Workz, a live video game at the Cobo Hall during the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) january 24, 2015 to educate parents of the 4 career levels and the most overlooked level of skilled trades. Money needs to be allocated to educate parents who have no idea how to prepare their students. We are always looking for donors to accelerate our mission.