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Communities Come to Aid of Students Aspiring to College

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An increasing number of communities are stepping in to bridge the gap between rapidly rising tuition costs and students who cannot afford to go on to college without financial assistance.

Recognizing that schools need help paving the way for financially needy youngsters who aspire to attend college, these communities are developing programs that provide high-school students with the money and information they need to pursue a higher education.

"I think what's happened, very honestly, is these groups have been constituted in communities around the country to respond to a student need that is unmet by the current guidance-and-delivery system,'' said Frank Burtnett, the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors.

Although one such program dates back to 1967, and a handful of others popped up in the 1970's and early 1980's, the vast majority date from the late 1980's.

In fact, because so many programs were established in the late 80's, program directors formed an informal group in 1989 to provide a resource base for each other and for new programs.

Today, the College Access Network includes 38 programs, according to the network's founder, Joyce Kroeller, the executive director of the CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore.

Noting that new programs are being developed each year, program directors also suggest that there are many other similar programs that networkers do not know exist.

"I don't think there is any question that there are more programs out there than we know, first of all, and that, as we identify people, they are anxious to be connected with us,'' said Kitty Porterfield, the executive director of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, Va.

Program Similarities

Though the programs vary from community to community, there are some similarities.

Most are designed to help students from working-class backgrounds who have respectable--but not necessarily exceptional--high-school grade-point averages.

Said one program director: "We're funding the average student.''

The programs typically offer both precollegiate advising and "last dollar'' grant assistance to eligible students who need help making up the difference between their estimated college costs and the total aid package they receive.

And most underwrite their activities by soliciting donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

Though the programs are similar to others that may be run by school districts or foundations, they differ by using a nonprofit community organization to raise funds for the one purpose of providing college assistance within a single school district.

Program directors note that the level of district involvement can range from simply allowing program advisers to operate within the schools to providing salaries for program employees.

Filling a Need

School and program officials say the proliferation of the college-assistance programs signals a recognition that not all students with the potential to succeed in college ever get a chance to enroll.

One problem, they note, is that high-school guidance counselors are often unable to give students the individual attention they need.

Not only are as many as 400 students assigned to each high-school counselor, but their time is increasingly spent on a raft of pressing personal and social problems.

"When I graduated from high school in the 1960's, you went to the college, and they looked at your face to tell if you were needy or not,'' said JoAnn Davis, the executive director of one network program, I Know I Can, in Columbus, Ohio. "Now, the whole process is so difficult, and all along it kids panic.''

The first city to recognize the problem was Cleveland, in 1967.

In surveying city high schools as a representative of a local foundation that wanted to commence a new educational program, Robert Coplan, a founder of the Cleveland Scholarship Program, said one thing stood out: Numerous students who were taking a college-preparatory curriculum had no idea how to apply to college or how to seek financial aid.

"The high schools were not equipped to handle anything but the A students and the star athletes,'' he said.

In its first year, the Cleveland Scholarship Program provided advice to parents and students and distributed 25 scholarships in five Cleveland high schools.

Today, the program places 22 advisers in Cleveland's public high schools and 21 suburban and Catholic high schools, and more than 700 students received nearly $350,000 in the 1990-91 school year.

Since its inception, more than 65,000 students--including the city's Mayor, Michael White--have received more than $6.8 million in aid.

"There's definitely more and more interest, because there are more students going to school that need to go to college,'' said Christina Milano, the executive director of the Cleveland program. "The federal grants and loans haven't begun to keep up with inflation.''

Model Program

As the network's oldest program, Cleveland has become a model for numerous other programs, and it continues to serve as a host to visitors from other cities who want to see firsthand how the program operates.

Also, because of the Cleveland program's popularity and success, more network programs have been established in Ohio, eight, than in any other state.

For example, Ms. Davis's I Know I Can program, in its fourth year, is closely modeled after the Cleveland Scholarship Program.

Although not all programs make such academic and earnings restrictions, I Know I Can requires participating students to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, come from families earning less than $40,000 a year, and provide four hours of service each year to the program.

Sister Mary Andrew Matesich, the president of Ohio Dominican College in Columbus, estimates that two-thirds of the 61 program participants who have enrolled in her college in the past four years would have been unable to do so immediately after graduating from high school had it not been for the program.

Meanwhile, Ms. Davis cites Joylynn Jossel as an I Know I Can success story.

Ms. Jossel, 20, is receiving her associate's degree in legal assistance this spring, and next fall plans to enroll in Capital University to pursue studies in English and prelaw.

Despite her 3.6 high-school grade-point average, Ms. Jossel said, were it not for the program, she would not have attended college.

"Up to that point, I didn't really plan on college,'' Ms. Jossel, who has a child, said. "I figured I'd just go out and get a job.''

An appointment with Ms. Davis made it clear that money would be available for college, and Ms. Jossel received a full scholarship to attend Columbus State Community College.

Ms. Davis "made it seem so realistic that college was possible for everyone,'' Ms. Jossel said.

"I just knew I had to go to college,'' she added. "It was just amazing that the money was really there.''

Expansion and Innovation

With the Columbus college-assistance program firmly established, Ms. Davis said program officials this year launched an early-intervention effort, targeting students as early as elementary school.

Other programs are embarking on similar expansion efforts.

In Cleveland, Ms. Milano said, in addition to offering advising services for a fee to suburban and Catholic schools, the program two years ago began working with adult and other nontraditional students who seek to go back to school.

The Cleveland program also uses its alumni and other city professionals to tutor college students who are receiving financial assistance from the program.

Programs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston are a part of larger efforts to reform those cities' schools.

Meanwhile, new programs are always getting off the ground.

In Los Angeles, the California Community Foundation plans to put a computer in each of the district's 59 high schools this fall, giving any student access to volumes of information on college admissions and financial aid.

The foundation is also training high-school counselors on collegiate access and raising more money to develop a financial component.

The Access to Higher Education Program in Lorain County, Ohio, meanwhile, recently received a three-year, $150,000 grant to implement precollegiate guidance services in area high schools.

Advising began in January, and the program's director, James White, a former director of financial aid for Oberlin College, said program officials are beginning to raise money to provide financial aid.

Marilyn Bauer, the chairman of the guidance department at Elyria High School, among the first of the county high schools to host a specialized adviser trained by the Access Program, said fewer financial-aid forms have been returned to students for corrections this year.

Parents, she said, report that they better understand the financial-aid process because the specialist assists them in filling out the necessary forms.

"We've been happy, because we have a [counselor-to-student] ratio of over 400 to 1,'' Ms. Bauer said. "He can troubleshoot ... while we have to deal with a crisis, drugs, abuse, or personal or academic concerns.''

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