Competing for College

All high school seniors deserve a fair shot at a good school.

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Assuring equal opportunity for minority students to attend college is both an economic necessity and a matter of social justice. Yet despite well-intentioned efforts, the United States is still struggling to make college more accessible to urban African-American and Latino students.

What is standing in the way?

For the past eight years, I have been helping minority students navigate the college-admissions maze, as a volunteer college adviser at a Harlem high school in New York City. The multiple application forms and divergent requirements and deadlines are daunting even for the top students, not to mention those at the bottom. Still, this high school, with a mix of African-American, Latino, and Asian students, succeeds in placing nearly all of its graduates in college, some in the nation’s most prestigious institutions.

For disadvantaged urban students, effective college guidance, offered on site, is critical to successful college placement.

Minority students often face huge obstacles: poverty, family disruption, language deficits, and inferior schooling. But my experience in Harlem has convinced me that urban high schools can open the door to college for these students, if the schools are willing and able to provide a demanding academic curriculum and a solid guidance program.

To their credit, many colleges and universities are reaching out to talented minority students with special weekend visits and summer orientation programs. They are sending representatives to urban high schools to meet with students, promote their colleges, and distribute applications and brochures. Federal and state governments, along with the colleges themselves, offer financial aid to students who otherwise could not afford a college education. Public and private institutions provide scholarships.

But that’s not enough. For disadvantaged urban students—even more than for their suburban and private school counterparts—effective college guidance, offered on site, is critical to successful college placement.

At the high school where I volunteer, as in most city schools, resources for college counseling are scarce. A single college counselor with a part-time teaching load advises about 375 seniors, who need to choose prospective colleges, fill out applications, write essays, take the SAT, and apply for financial aid. He must process heaps of mail announcing scholarships and college trips, schedule visits by college-admissions representatives, and cope with the daily stream of questions and requests from students.

As college deadlines approach, hundreds of transcripts, SAT scores, and recommendations are mailed from our college office, which sometimes must close its doors to handle the backlog. The colleges and financial-aid agencies also require detailed information from our students, and increasingly responses are best made online. But since computer ownership is not a given for these students, there is competition during peak times to use our four aging computers and one temperamental printer.

Contrast this with conditions in the affluent, mostly white New York City suburb where I was a high school teacher. There the admissions process was buttressed by an army of parents, paid consultants, guidance counselors, and secretaries, with ample computers, printers, and fax machines. The guidance counselors—with a student load half that of the part-time counselor in my Harlem high school—had advised their students since freshman year, knew them well, and could give each one personal attention. By junior year, these students were visiting colleges with their college-educated parents or with friends. By senior year, they were entirely clued in to the system and ready to file their applications, often to a dozen or more institutions.

Can urban high schools compete? I believe they can, if they have the resources and the will to commit to the following:

• The principal and teachers must assign a high priority to college preparation and guidance.

• The academic program must be rigorous and demanding and should include honors and Advanced Placement courses.

• A full-time college counselor, with secretarial help and sufficient computer access, must direct a college-guidance program targeted to juniors and seniors and supported by teachers and administrators.

In our Harlem high school, the teachers have high standards and raise the aspirations of their students. Many write thoughtful and persuasive recommendations. Some make college counseling an extra part of their teaching day. Representatives of community organizations and trained volunteers are also a valuable resource and are available most days to assist students. We make seniors aware of the colleges where our graduates have been successful, help them match their college choices with their grade point averages and SAT scores, and maintain a library of college information and materials. We read their essays and encourage revisions. We answer endless questions about the application and financial-aid forms and explore college options for undocumented students. A special grant helps keep the college office open and staffed one day a week after school.

When the college acceptances arrive in the mail, almost every one of our students will have a choice. Then we face the delicate task of explaining the details of competing financial-aid packages and helping these students and their families weigh their options. Most of our students’ parents are single and poor and have never been to college; many are immigrants, some undocumented. Often they are anxious about seeing their children go off to college, and are terrified of accumulating debt. Parents of our best students must balance the long-term advantages of a child’s attendance at a top-tier college, which may involve substantial borrowing, against the decision to attend a city university and live at home, with nearly all expenses paid.

One of our most effective activities has been to train a group of seniors with their college acceptances in hand to advise juniors on the rigors of the admissions process. These “peer advisers” visit classes in May and offer personal insights and tips to motivate students to begin the process of college selection for the following year.

Disadvantaged minority students benefit immensely from well-informed adults who take a personal interest in them and are willing to serve as their advocates. I have made the case for talented students in person or by phone to admissions officers of Ivy League and other selective colleges. A recent success story involved a first-generation Latina student, gifted in writing and English literature. With my encouragement, she applied to and was accepted by a selective New England women’s college, which she is now attending. Her letters are full of enthusiasm, gratitude, and excitement about her courses and future plans.

Her story is energizing. Able minority students from urban high schools should have the same opportunity to attend a good college as their suburban counterparts. That means giving these schools the resources they need to maintain high academic standards and to provide the counseling, information, and technical support that are fundamental to a sound college-guidance program.

Vol. 25, Issue 20, Pages 35-36

Published in Print: January 25, 2006, as Competing for College
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