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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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