Putting a college advisor in every Michigan high school

IONIA – A 33 and a 4.0.

Kylie Horrocks repeats the figures for emphasis, recounting the high school senior who had come to her for advice with a 33 on his ACT (in the top two percent of all the high school juniors in Michigan) and a 4.0 grade point average.

At a lot of high schools, the boy would be applying to go to the University of Michigan or Ivy League schools.

But this was Ionia High School, where almost six out of 10 graduates don’t go to college, and only three-in-10 enroll at a four-year university. Among economically disadvantaged students, just two-in-10 walk onto a four-year campus.

“He told me he was going to L.C.C. (Lansing Community College),” Horrocks recalled.

Horrocks is a member of the Michigan College Advising Corps, which places young college graduates in low-income schools and rural schools to encourage students in those schools to seek college educations. Horrocks begged the boy to apply to four-year universities. “There are so many things you can do,” Horrocks said she told the teen.

The boy relented and applied to Lawrence Tech in Southfield. To his surprise, he was admitted and received a large scholarship.

“Even when they have the opportunity, they often don’t take it,” Horrocks said. “It’s not in their mindset that these schools are even a possibility.”

Michigan’s low-income students are less likely to enroll in college, less likely to attend four-year universities, and less likely to attend selective schools when the do enroll, than their wealthier peers.

MORE COVERAGE: Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Horrocks and a cadre of 40 recent graduates of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan are trying to change that. The fledgling college advising program may be doubling in size next year, parachuting 80 recent college grads into low-income and rural high schools across the state to offer free college advice to kids who often don’t have a clue how or where to enroll.

The Michigan College Advising Corps, which next year will be rebranded as AdviseMI, is an effort to give low-income and rural students access to the same college guidance and support that their wealthier, suburban peers get, often through private fee-based services.The cost of the advisors, which totals about $45,000 a year including salary, benefits and training, is paid by a combination of state and federal funds, as well as support from participating universities.

After-school academic services afforded to more affluent students contribute to the college access gap between low-income and higher-income students.

For those who because of finances or geography do not have access to fee-based guidance, school counselors are often the only place to turn for advice. But with Michigan’s school counseling ranks decimated by budget cuts (Michigan schools average 706 students per counselor, the fifth-highest ratio of students-per-counselor in the nation.), counselors seldom have adequate time to offer in-depth college advising, particularly at lower-income schools.

Run by the Michigan College Access Network, the Michigan College Advising Corps recruit college grads in the same vein as AmeriCorps and Teach for America.

Corps members sign up for a two-year stint in a high school. They get four weeks of training and earn $24,000 a year plus benefits. Most are not education majors. “We get students with a strong sense of service who are interested in a gap (period) before grad school,” said Chris Rutherford, program manager of the program at the University of Michigan. “Our advisors are not counselors or social workers. Their primary goal is to get students who weren’t considering college to consider it, and students who were considering community college to consider four-year universities.”

Different outcomes

College was dinner table talk for Erin Fischer when she was growing up in Belleville. It wasn’t for many of her friends in the blue collar town near Detroit.

“We didn’t have representatives from colleges come and talk to us” at the high school, Fischer recalled. “There was one guidance counselor for the entire school, so we didn’t have a lot of one-on-one meetings about what our plans were post-graduation. There weren’t a lot of announcements about scholarships or college open houses.

“My friends and I ended up in very different places post-graduation,” said Fischer, who graduated last spring from U-M with a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience. “It was never at all that they weren’t qualified or weren’t willing to work; they just weren’t having the same interaction outside the classroom that I was.”

Fischer is providing those interactions to a crop of kids at Lansing Eastern High School. At the urban, high-poverty school, the average ACT score is below 15 (the state average is 20.1) Only one-in-seven will enroll at a four-year college.

“The few students who are looking at four-year universities are very apprehensive,” Fischer said. “I’ve talked to students with a 26 ACT and a 3.9 GPA, who say, ‘Well, Miss Fischer, I’m going to apply to Western (Michigan University), but I’m probably not going to get in (an ACT score of 26 is higher than more than 75 percent of students accepted at Western).

“We have plenty of posters hanging up showing average incoming scores at all 15 public universities,” Fischer said. “They (her students) are not at the bottom of the pile. But they still feel they’re not good enough. It’s really hard to instill a sense of self-esteem in students who, depending on life’s circumstances, have had that taken away from them.”

Someone to inspire

The job of Advising Corps members is part cheerleader, part research assistant, part editor and part advocate. Fischer has been known to drive scholarship applications to universities to make deadlines and call admissions officers to make a case for getting students accepted off wait lists.

“I know a lot of people who weren’t planning to go to college at all and now are going to go to LCC,” said Lansing Eastern senior Cat Hinton. Fischer encouraged Hinton to apply to her dream school (Michigan State) and helped her navigate financial aid forms. “She (Fischer) explains how this can help you in your life,” Hinton said.

When she was accepted at MSU, Fischer greeted her with an green-and-white MSU donut.

“I’m going to tell my grandchildren about Miss Fischer – she made my dreams come true,” Hinton said. “Every school should have a Miss Fischer.”

Moving the needle on enrollment

The Michigan program is too new to have data demonstrating its effectiveness, but an identical national parent program, the College Advising Corps, has an impressive record. In schools around the country with College Advising Corps members, students who met at least once with advisors were 30 percent more likely to apply to college, 18 percent more likely to apply to three or more colleges, and 26 percent more likely to fill out federal financial aid forms.

A Stanford University study found that students who enrolled in college from schools with College Advising Corps staff members were as likely to still be in college two years later as the general population of university students – a major success, considering that the advisors work primarily with low-income students and students whose parents didn’t attend college.

That same study found that students from schools with College Advising Corps members were 8 percent to 12 percent more likely to enroll in college than students at demographically similar high schools without advisors.

A 10-percent growth in college enrollment among low-income and rural students would have the potential of providing a big boost to the Michigan economy (workers with a bachelor’s degree earn on average 70 percent more than high school graduates).

Changing the culture

The windows that border the cafeteria of Ionia High school are covered in senior photos. Beside each senior photo are logos of colleges where they’ve been accepted. Down a hallway is a poster that is updated weekly with the percentage of seniors who have turned in the FAFSA – the federal financial aid form.

Horrocks held two college financial aid nights at the school. After the first, she called every family who hadn’t attended, asking them to show up at the next session. She’s met with every senior at least three times. Later this spring, she’s organizing a countywide college fair, with representatives from more than 30 colleges scheduled to attend.

Evelyn Velasco is an Ionia junior who is already getting help from Horrocks. Her parents are immigrants from Mexico. Her mother works as a cleaner and her father works in a factory. That’s typical in a community where just 9 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher – about one third the rate in the state (26 percent), and lower than Detroit (12 percent). There are no tutoring services in Ionia. The closest ACT prep service is an hour away.

With Horrocks’ help, Velasco is exploring the possibility of attending Aquinas College in Grand Rapids or Grand Valley State University. If she can get in, and if she can afford it.

A lot of students like Velasco are “admissible to whatever school they want to go to,” Horrocks said, “but when their parents didn’t go to college, they don’t know how to start the process.”

Overall college enrollment among Ionia grads hasn’t budged, but enrollment in four-year colleges has increased from 22 percent to 32 percent among all students, and 13 percent to 20 percent for low-income.

Those figures are still below the state averages. While the ACT scores at the school are close to the state average, college enrollment from the school, and at other Ionia County schools, is among the worst in Michigan.

It takes time to create a college-going culture, Horrocks said. That’s why she feels it’s vital for the program to be maintained in schools for years to come.

The complexities of funding for the program make it a challenge to maintain and expand. Advising Corp member salaries and training are paid for through state and federal funds, as well as support from participating universities.

Next school year, the number of universities recruiting and coordinating Corps members will grow from two to 10, with plans to double the number of advisors to 80.

It’s a big jump, aided by an additional $1 million in Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget. But it’s still just “a Band-Aid solution,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of MCAN, which coordinates the program.

Every high school in the state needs a college advisor, Johnson said. At $45,000 per year for training, salary and benefits, the advisors could be cost-effective investment in Michigan’s future.

Here’s the math: If an advisor that costs $45,000 a year in salary, benefits and training is able to persuade just two students who weren’t going to college to enroll in four-year universities and they earn bachelor’s degrees, those students will each earn, on average, $23,000 more per year than they would have as high school grads. That’s $46,000 pumped into the economy each year for a $45,000 investment, from just two additional students making it onto campus.

If the state picked up the tab for these college advisers in the 300 Michigan high schools with the lowest college enrollment rates (roughly half the state's high schools), it would cost the state $13.5 million a year.

“Putting a college adviser into schools is an investment in the community,” said Ionia corps member Horrocks. “There is some up-front cost, but even being here less than a year, I’ve seen how it’s changed some of the students.”

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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Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:21am
I'm old enough to remember when EVERY school had a 'guidance counselor'. Then as we slowly but surely defunded education they disappeared. Now they 'free', huh? What a sad situation; the dumbing down of America. A dumb voter is a good, obedient voter who will vote reliably against his or her best interests and in favor of the wealthy and corporations.
Wed, 07/22/2015 - 1:20am
Every school still has a guidance counselor but their caseloads are often 1 to 400 students. A college adviser does not replace a counselor at lol nor are they liscned to and no company is getting rich we are simply trying to give low income students an opportunity. The college adviser position is grant funded which also means not for profit sir!
Joseph E Sucher
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:06am
Where has education been defunded? Not at the State level. Maybe at the local level in some instances, I'm not sure. But not in my school system. But that is not my point. Where's the evidence to support the position that dumbing down of America might be in the best interest of the wealthy and corporations? I would think quite the contrary. Michigan and all of America needs a trained work force. Corporations and of course small businesses cannot make any money without well qualified employees. And "well qualified" is getting increasing difficult with the growing dependence on technology. A "dumb voter" is not a good voter, ever. Certainly a dumb voter will not be informed on the issues, hence unprepared to make good choices.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:44am
As a person in counseling and guidance for over 35 years I can assure you there is very little counseling going on. It is scheduling,testing, and college info. 3000,400,500, plus is the norm per counselor. It is all about priorities. R.L.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 12:24pm
Again with the emphasis on college prep. As a Voc. and Tech. Ed teacher for 34 years, it's a battle we continually fought to elicit support from our counselors (all COLLEGE graduates). Now we see an untrained workforce with employers begging for trained people to fill good paying jobs in Michigan. College isn't the be all/end all for students. Our governor may have seen the light, but your focus does a disservice to vocational training in our high schools.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 7:12pm
Right on Geo. Don't confuse college with a four year degree. There are many avenues, namely Certificate,Associate Degree , and three year programs. We need more hands and exploratory options in high school. Foreign language for all,not necessary. R.L.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 11:19pm
Thanks for highlighting the great work that Erin Fischer is doing along with four other college advisers in Ingham County. We just went wit a group of juniors and seniors on a college visit to Olivet today. Many of them had never been on a visit outside of Lansing. These young people are going to be competing in a global workforce. We need to expose them to the opportunities and world beyond our borders. Help us create a college going culture and our economy will grow!
Old Sarge 79
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 12:03am
Please see the attached letter to the editor from the Battle Creek Enquirer 3/27/15. It is written by a college bound BCPS student. Apparently, things are not quite so rosy at all the sites that have college advisors. "As the end of my senior year draws near, it seems that I have all of my ducks in a row. I know where I’m going to college, I know exactly how I am going to pay for it, what I’m going to major in and the classes necessary to get there. So why is the common perception that teenagers are the most unmotivated, lazy, and stupid generation yet? Teenagers don’t get enough credit. Yes, there are kids who don’t care, feel dependent, and have no motivation. This is not the case for most teenagers I know. As a student from both Battle Creek Central and the Math and Science Center, I see both ends of the spectrum. While at Central, the only message conveyed is . . . wait for it . . . graduate. That’s it. Graduate so that you can get a minimum wage job and barely get by. At the Math and Science Center, I am expected to not only graduate, but attain a well-paying career upon graduation (and be self-sufficient enough to seek out scholarships!) It seems that Battle Creek Central is shooting for the bare minimum, seemingly with the mindset that once students graduate, they’ve completed their mission. If it weren’t for the Math and Science Center, I would be so unprepared. The problem isn’t the students, it’s their low expectations from the schools and adults in their lives. We need teachers to hold us accountable and yell at us when we deserve it, parents who will make us do our homework and go to our conferences. Raising students is a team effort, but it’s the only hope for the future. Karina Allen Battle Creek" Maybe interviewing some more people would have resulted in an article that created a more honest discussion regarding causes and cures. The Peace Corps and Vista have been around for a long time. I would be interested in seeing if these programs actually addressed poverty and lack of opportunity in a more cost effective manner than merely giving grants directly to the recipients? Any legislator/congressperson calling for a cost benefit analysis of these programs paid for with public funds? Bring on the bean counters and sink the intangibles.
Keith Warnick
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 10:44am
We created, in Ferndale, a college prep high school for Urban students in 2005; one of the early positions we added to the staff was College Transition Specialist. Long before this group came together. Two years later, we added a College Retention/Success Advisor. These positions work daily with our HS students, along with the entire staff, to help them focus on the goal of not only graduating HS but being accepted into colleges and graduating from those colleges. Our advisors being available by phone, e-mail or onsite visits to the schools to help with applications, course selection, etc has put this HS near the top of high schools in Michigan. From the first graduating class in 2008 until now, we have 95%-100% HS graduation; 100% college acceptance; 80%+ college retention. Numbers you do not normally see from schools with 95% minority population. Such figures earned us First Place in the American School Board Journal Magna Awards of 2010 for innovative education practices.http://www.ferndaleschools.org/schools/uhs/