College & Workforce Readiness

TFA-Like Corps Sends College Advisers to High Schools

By Caralee J. Adams — January 13, 2015 7 min read
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The message is simple, yet powerful: “If I can do it, you can do it, too.”

That’s what graduates fresh out of college working in the College Advising Corps often tell high school students. Similar to Teach For America, the national program that recruits newly minted college graduates to teach in classrooms, the corps advisers commit to working full time for two years. They work alongside high school counselors with the goal of improving the number of first-generation college-going, low-income, underrepresented students who apply to, enter, and complete college.

Because most of the advisers were the first in their families to go to college, or are members of minority groups (one-third are African-American and another third Latino), they can relate to the students they serve.

“The advisers feel an absolute obligation. ... Before they advance, they feel they need to turn back and pull somebody through that door as well,” said Nicole F. Hurd, the founder and chief executive officer of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based nonprofit organization. “They have credibility because they are so close in age and circumstance to the students.”

Roxana Cruz, an adviser fellow with National College Advising Corps, poses for a portrait at Tennyson High School in Hayward, California, Thursday, January 8, 2015.

In 2004, when Ms. Hurd was the dean of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, she became aware of the large number of high school graduates in the state who did not go on to college. Thinking that young “near peers” could be a motivating voice in high schools, she secured about $600,000 in funding the next year to pilot the concept with 14 advisers.

In 2007, the program expanded nationally, and in 2013, the College Advising Corps became an independent nonprofit. Now, it operates in 14 states, with 470 advisers in 483 high schools, and aims to be in 1,000 schools by 2020. The program is further expanding its reach through virtual advising, working with students via phone calls, texts, and email.

The CAC’s $26 million budget comes from foundations and 23 university partners.

‘Energetic Advisers’

The advisers, who earn between $24,000 and $30,000 a year plus benefits, often are welcome additions at a time when professional counselors are stretched thin and a broader pool of students is being encouraged to pursue higher education.

“We have so many irons in the fire that it’s tough to focus on postsecondary planning,” Cassandra Bolding, a school counselor who has an adviser helping her through the program at Therrell High School in Atlanta. Having energetic young advisers who remember the process because they just recently completed it themselves helps relieve the stress on the counseling staff, she said.

Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has written a book on effective college-advising models, said young advisers can inspire and connect with students.

“Peers play a part in forming a college identity,” she said. “As students figure out who they are, peers are mirrors.”

Roxana Cruz, 25, is a corps adviser at Tennyson High School in Hayward, Calif., who grew up with immigrant Mexican parents who never went to college. “I’m low-income. I didn’t have anyone helping me family-wise navigate the system,” said Ms. Cruz.

She tells students that taking out $40,000 in loans to earn her sociology degree from the University of California, Berkeley, was an investment that paid off, and that the debt is nothing compared to the career flexibility and job opportunities that her education provides.

A big part of her job is to explain the application process, be a cheerleader, and build a college-going culture at her school. “I make a point to tell them I believe in them and I am there for them no matter what,” Ms. Cruz said.

High school seniors from the class of 2013 who met with a corps adviser were 23 percent more likely to apply to college, 23 percent more likely to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and 15 percent more likely to take college-admissions tests, according to an external evaluation survey of the program from researchers at Stanford University.

Not to Supplant

Unlike Teach For America, whose teachers are salaried staff members of the districts they serve, most corps advisers are placed in schools at no cost to the system. Because the advisers are intended to supplement counselors, the school must agree not to fire staff members or reconfigure its staffing when an adviser comes on board.

Before starting, the new college graduates complete an intensive six-week boot camp on the program’s partner campuses to learn about college advising. Once on the job, they get periodic professional-development sessions.

“Nobody wants a 22- or 23-year-old to say, ‘I’m going to turn around your school,’ ” said Ms. Hurd. “I tell the advisers to leave their Superman and Superwoman capes behind. This is not about you. This is about holding hands with our school districts.”

One hope among school counseling educators is that advising-corps experience will interest more students in joining the profession. Nearly half of incoming advisers surveyed by the organization indicated they were interested in a career in counseling high school students for college.

At the end of the first year with the corps, advisers receive a $5,600 education award to use to pay off student loans or finance graduate school. Ms. Cruz from Hayward, Calif., is considering getting her master’s degree in educational leadership or counseling.

“This is really my passion,” Ms. Cruz said. “Working for the College Advising Corps would give me the resources I need to continue in this field.”

Making Connections

In Seward, Alaska, Kurt S. Simonsen, 25, works as a corps adviser at several high schools with distance and in-person advising, including the school he once attended in Alaska.

Roxana Cruz, an adviser fellow with National College Advising Corps, advises junior Oscar Ramos at the College and Career Center at Tennyson High School in Hayward, Calif., on January 8.

“It’s really easy to identify with the students that have the need,” he said. “As opposed to a traditional counselor, they really listen to me.”

To get students who might not be thinking about college to consider it, the young advisers get creative with activities and games. At a corps training session last fall, advisers were encouraged to adapt games, such as Monopoly and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, with questions related to the college search.

“To give them 40 minutes of fun, it makes them happy and creates a dialogue for them to come to us when the time is right,” said Molly Thompson, 23, an adviser at two central Pennsylvania high schools.

The advisers’ role is to help the counselors, who are often swamped dealing with testing and student crises, said Ms. Thompson.

The near-peer model means that advisers can talk to students about entertainer Miley Cyrus or television shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” she said. “Those seemingly trivial things make us really relatable,” Ms. Thompson said.

However, Ms. Savitz-Romer said that just being relatable is insufficient and she worries that young advisers are not necessarily equipped to handle other issues that come up. But Ms. Hurd said that advisers are taught during the training to refer students with personal problems to school staff.

Virtual Advising

To expand its reach, the program last fall began piloting its virtual advising with corps alumni working from their home offices to answer student questions by phone, text, email, or video calls. The e-advising initiative, financed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, supports the CAC, and two other college-access nonprofits, College Possible in St. Paul, Minn., and the Milpitas, Calif.-based Strive for College, in providing long-distance advising to students.

The College Board, the New York City-based organization that sponsors the SAT, identifies low-income students who have scored at least 1250 on the SAT and invites them by email to consult with a College Advising Corps e-adviser. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, in Lansdowne, Va., matches names with College Possible for college advice.

Corps alumna Roha Teferra, 24, works as an e-adviser answering student questions from her home office in Houston. “If they need to get in touch at 6 p.m., we are available at hours a school counselor might not [be],” she said.

Technology has the potential to help more students, but not all have access, and there are limitations, said David Hawkins, the director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Va.

“There is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation,” he said. “Some college counseling, if done well, is better than none.”

The new advising-corps program is intended to provide additional support to students who are already on the college path, Ms. Hurd said. “We have no interest in replacing counselors,” she said.

“We are there as graceful, humble, well-trained, near-peer advisers,” she said. “We don’t do this to the schools, but with the schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as TFA-Like Corps Places Advisers In High Schools


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