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Published in Print: September 27, 2006, as College-Counseling Effort Blends Public, Private Resources

College-Counseling Effort Blends Public, Private Resources

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Through an unusual partnership with a nationally known for-profit company, a Colorado school reform group is working to address what it calls the “Colorado paradox”: While more than a third of the state’s residents have a college degree, only one-fifth of the state’s entering 9th graders go on to graduate from college on time.

The Denver-based Fund for Colorado’s Future has hired the Princeton Review, a New York City-based test-preparation and tutoring company, for a three-year, $3 million pilot program that uses advisers and computer software to help more students pursue postsecondary education. Now in its third school year, the High Horizons program has deployed eight advisers to work in 23 middle and high schools in five Colorado districts, serving a cross section of 17,000 students.

“There were a lot of kids—diamonds in the rough—that weren’t being reached,” said Terri Rayburn-Davis, the fund’s executive director.

One reason for that, the fund believed, is that high school guidance counselors are often overwhelmed. While the U.S. Department of Education recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1, the national average is 284-to-1, and in the Western region, which includes Colorado, the ratio rises to 330-to-1, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

High Horizons advisers help students figure out what they should major in, choose colleges they should apply to, and navigate the financial-aid and scholarship maze through face-to-face meetings and through a Princeton Review Web portal called Guidance Center.

The advisers also train teachers and other staff members in using the software, update them on college-admissions requirements, help parents fill out financial-aid forms, and run weeklong college-preparation programs for students in the summer, said Molly E. Doll, hired by the Princeton Review as the project manager for High Horizons.

Keeping an Edge

Among the 50 states, Colorado has the third-highest proportion of residents who have a bachelor’s degree or higher, almost 36 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 population survey. The state also has a higher-than-average high school graduation rate, of 76.4 percent, compared with 73.9 percent nationally, according to a 2006 report by the NCES.

Yet on average, only 20 out any given 100 9th graders graduate either with an associate’s degree within three years, or a bachelor’s degree within six years, data from the federal education statistics agency show. That paradox, officials of the Fund for Colorado’s Future speculate, may stem from migration into the state of college-educated residents.

But regardless of its origins, the mismatch must be addressed, those officials say, if the state hopes to maintain its educational attainment edge. And that’s where High Horizons comes in.

Help for Colorado

The nonprofit Fund for Colorado’s Future hired the New York City-based Princeton Review to provide on-site advisers and computer software to bolster college-counseling services in 23 middle and high schools in a three-year, $3 million pilot program.

About 3,000 nonprofit organizations across the country run in-school programs designed to raise college-going rates, according to Ann Coles, the director of the Pathways to College Network, a Boston-based alliance of 38 national groups that help disadvantaged students get into college.

There are also federally funded college-prep programs such as the $303 million Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP.

But Ms. Coles said she knew of few for-profit companies that have partnered with states to provide online and in-person college advisers to schools.

Besides its work in Colorado, the Princeton Review also contracted with Texas in the 2005-06 school year for a $3.2 million pilot program. It provided college-counseling advisers and software in five school districts near the United States’ border with Mexico and the Dallas public schools.

The company’s admissions-services revenue, driven largely by counseling services, grew by 17.6 percent, to $5.7 million, in the first half of 2006 compared with the same period in 2005, according to company financial documents.

The Texas program also helped spur approval of a state bill this year that gives districts $275 per high school student for college-preparation services.

The Princeton Review’s contract with the state ended after one year, but five of the six districts in the pilot program contracted with the company for counseling services this school year, for a total of about $1 million.

The program in the Lone Star State targeted disadvantaged middle and high school students, many of them Hispanic, said Sylvia R. Hatton, a former executive director of the state’s Region 1 education service center, which oversees 37 districts, including those in the program. Those programs are more important than ever because of keener global competition for jobs, she said.

“If we don’t engage these students and transition them successfully into college, then the economy in the U.S. will crumble,” Ms. Hatton said. “That means preparing the workforce of tomorrow.”

U.S. Standing Still?

A recent report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a San Jose, Calif.-based policy-research group, underscores that sentiment. While the numbers of math and science and other college graduates are skyrocketing in countries such as China, the percentage in the United States has virtually stalled, the center says in its new report, “Measuring Up 2006.” ("Higher Education Report Jibes With U.S. Panel's Work," Sept. 13, 2006.)

Results of the Texas program show that of the 1,707 graduating seniors in the Dallas school district with whom Princeton Review advisers worked, 64 percent, or 1,092, said they will attend a two- or four-year college. In addition, about 27 percent, or 468, received college scholarships, averaging $5,468 per student, according to the company.

The 470-student Lyford High School, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, is one of the schools using the Princeton Review’s college-counseling services. Principal Isabel M. Solis said that, at first, her students balked at learning test-taking strategies and researching majors and colleges.

So staff members called parents and explained the benefits of the class, she said. And the students stuck with the program. “Now I have a lot more interest in college from the students,” Ms. Solis said.

In Colorado, Ms. Doll noted that some students involved in the High Horizons program are the first in their families to attend college, so their parents often are unfamiliar with the process.

At one school, she recalls, she asked a group of 12 high school students about going to college. “This was April of their senior year. All wanted to go,” Ms. Doll said. “But only one had even filled out a college application.”

Data measuring the impact of High Horizons are hard to come by. Figuring out exactly how many students are enrolling in college, and where, has not been easy, Ms. Doll said. The high schools in the program did not track their students’ college-going rates, and while students were surveyed on whether and where they would attend college, the self-reported information the students provided was at times incorrect, she said.

In addition, colleges are loath to release specific admissions numbers because of federal regulations, she added. The Fund for Colorado’s Future will decide in the next few months whether to renew the program.

Vol. 26, Issue 05, Page 7

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