College & Workforce Readiness

Plan to Refocus Md. College-Advising Program Raises Concerns

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim — January 13, 2015 5 min read
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A debate over a plan to expand a fledgling college-advising program in Maryland highlights a critical fault line in the world of college access: whether to bank on already-high-achieving students to ensure program success or to focus on those with greater academic needs.

Documents recently submitted to Maryland lawmakers show that under the plan to expand Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success, or ACES, from the Montgomery County district to more school systems statewide, only the top 10 percent of academic performers among the state’s 47,000 low-income high school juniors and seniors—or 4,700 students—would get the services of an “academic coach” through ACES. College-access advocates—including the director of the program—worry that such a narrow focus could shortchange the students who need help the most.

Leaders in the college advising field say Maryland’s dilemma is a common one.

“There is certainly a case to be made that with tight budgets, we have to do what we can, and making sure that students who achieved academically are not left behind constitutes a first point of triage—a fair argument,” said David Hawkins, the executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Arlington, Va. “But there are other students who can succeed in postsecondary education, and in these situations, they get little of this sort of help.”

White House Attention

Maryland’s proposed $5.3 million expansion plan—which helps groups of low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students chart their way toward college—is part of a commitment by the University System of Maryland to fulfill a pledge it made during a “call to action” that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama issued at the White House’s inaugural College Opportunity Summit last January.

The plan—produced by the Maryland Department of Education, the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, and the University System of Maryland—is also a response to state legislators’ call for a feasibility study on the expansion of ACES.

While not unprecedented, the planned expansion puts Maryland among a small but growing number of states looking to provide college advising beyond what students are likely to get, if at all, from their often-overburdened school counselors.

Some observers, particularly college-access practitioners in Maryland, question why ACES—which made its debut in fall 2013—is being expanded when it has not yet built a record of success.

Joann A. Boughman, the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Maryland, concedes that ACES had only “anecdotal evidence” of success when system officials offered it as a model during last year’s White House summit.

“The White House was asking what are some of the models we believe would be successful,” Ms. Boughman said.

Proposed Emphasis Questioned

But the expansion plans show that officials of the state university system are banking on already-successful students to create a strong track record, whereas the program’s original intent—according to its director, Karen K. Callender—was to serve students “who are not sure they can gain access” to college.

Ms. Callender questioned the wisdom of serving the highest-performing students, saying they would likely find their way to college even without the help of ACES.

“They’re already slated for college, already prepared, because everyone supports the top 10 percent,” she said.

Ms. Callender said ACES has enjoyed considerable success getting students enrolled in college who were less certain about whether they could go.

“Many of the students will say: ‘I didn’t think I could go to college before ACES. I didn’t know where I could go. I didn’t know what I could do,’ ” Ms. Callender said. “Those are the kids we want to work with.”

Ms. Boughman did not dispute the need to serve students beyond the top 10 percent. But she said the state education officials charged with expanding the ACES program don’t foresee being able to garner all the financial resources needed to do so.

“Our focus was purely the fact that we know that there is no way we are going to take this program big enough and comprehensive enough to get to all the students who need and deserve this type of help,” Ms. Boughman said.

The issue is all the more critical given the $5.3 million state appropriation being sought to expand the ACES program—a figure that breaks down to about $1,100 per student.

“If you’re going to spend $5.3 million a year to increase college-going in Maryland, is there another strategy that could serve more students?” said Elizabeth Morgan, the director of external relations for the National College Access Network, a Washington-based group that advocates for nonprofits working to expand college access.

“That’s, I think, a tough public-policy choice for a program that is essentially saying to some kids: We can’t help you because you aren’t good enough,” Ms. Morgan said.

One District’s Version

In its current form, the ACES program provides a variety of services to high school students in the 154,000-student Montgomery County system who hail from low-income backgrounds, such as those from single-parent homes, immigrants, those in foster care, and those who are the first in their families to attend college or who are from groups that are historically underrepresented in college.

The program—a collaboration of the Montgomery County school system; Montgomery College, a two-year, public college; and the Universities at Shady Grove, a partnership campus for nine schools in the state university system—seeks to “create a seamless pathway from high school to college completion.” Its $1 million funding primarily comes from Montgomery College, Ms. Callender said.

The program relies on paid, full-time “academic coaches” from Montgomery College who are placed at 10 high schools to provide a “case-management approach” that includes—among other services—help with filling out financial-aid forms and navigating the college-admissions process in general. It also features college-entrance-exam preparation and “summer bridge” programs to ease students’ transition into college and reduce remedial-coursetaking.

There are now a total of 1,300 ACES students, according to a December 2014 White House report.

The expansion plan calls for 38 ACES coaches and 19 program assistants to serve the 4,700 students in the top 10 percent of Maryland’s low-income 11th and 12th graders. The intent is to keep the coach-to-student ratio at 1-to-125 and the program assistant-to-student ratio at 1-to-250.

Elementary and secondary counselors in Maryland have an average caseload of 357 students, according to NACAC, far beyond the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250 students.

Efforts to obtain complete data from ACES on its students’ progress did not succeed, but the White House report notes that “98 percent of the [Montgomery County public school] seniors in ACES applied to a two- or four-year college or university.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as Growth of Md. Advising Program Runs Into Familiar Controversy

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