Spotlight Exclusives

Equal Access to College Hampered by Lack of Guidance Counselors

Stell Simonton Stell Simonton, posted on

On Martin Luther King Day in Philadelphia more than 500 people packed into the Zellerbach Theatre at the University of Pennsylvania to see a film about high school students struggling to apply for college.

The movie, Personal Statement, taps into simmering tension about unequal access to college and the lack of guidance for low-income students.

Guidance counselor Heather Marcus of Philly School Counselors United organized the screening.

“Counselors do the best job they can do” but there are not enough of them, said Marcus, who works at Julia Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School.

The lack of counseling resources, particularly for low-income students, is felt strongly in Philadelphia, one of the poorest large cities in the nation — but it’s a national problem.

More than one-fifth of public high schools in the nation don’t have a guidance counselor, according to a report issued in 2016 by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

This statistic raises the question: how is higher education equally accessible when kids in high-poverty neighborhoods lack college guidance?

Fewer than 5 percent of urban school districts meet the student-to-counselor ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association, which is 250 to 1. Across the nation, only 18 percent of school districts meet this ratio. The national average is 482 students per counselor.

Kids whose families are low income, whose parents have not been to college or who are part of historically disadvantaged groups have fewer resources and less information about college than their suburban and private school peers.

Camellia Brown, 18, graduated last year from Parkway Center City, a Philadelphia high school of about 560 students. Her mother works as a crossing guard to support the family, and she and two younger siblings grew up in public housing.

“Nobody in my family has been to college,” Brown said.

An avid reader, Brown knew she wanted to attend college, but at first wasn’t sure about the application process.

“They don’t know where to start,” said Tyler Tolman, who coaches high school seniors at Dobbins and Mastbaum high schools in Philadelphia, where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free lunch.

“A lot of students are in the dark about the steps they need to take,” he said.

Tolman, a recent graduate of Earlham College, works for College Possible, one of the national nonprofit organizations that has stepped up to address the college advising gap. College Possible uses AmeriCorps volunteers who spend a year embedded in schools.

Among other things, Tolman helps students articulate their experience as they prepare to write application essays. He recently worked with a student who has a two-year-old daughter. Together they discussed ways to show the challenges she had faced and “how her experience with motherhood was something that could be seen as a triumph,” Tolman said.

The schools don’t have a college-going culture, said another College Possible coach, Dominique Homer, who works with juniors at Dobbins and Mastbaum. She said her office is a place where students can explore a different reality.

“They can come in and focus,” she said.

Part of her job is to champion students and to show them they have what it takes.

Even when high schools have guidance counselors, the ones in under-resourced schools are stretched thin because they have to address a wide variety of student needs, said Jen Weikert, executive director of College Possible’s Philadelphia branch. “They are dealing with the impact of poverty,” she said.

“[Students] need a champion. Often no one in their family went to college. It seems like something that isn’t possible,” she said. “Coaches help them see they have the power to get to college on their own.”

It’s not that low-income students don’t want to go to college: 83 percent aspire to a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree, according to the ACT testing organization.

But low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented youth enroll in college at a lower rate and graduate at a lower rate.

College Possible staff work with juniors and seniors  in six Philadelphia high schools, both during school hours and in after-school sessions. They help students raise their SAT scores, complete applications, and get financial aid. Students explore possible majors, payment strategies, life on campus and whether a two- or four-year college is right for them. The organization coached 260 graduating seniors last year.

College Possible also has branches in Chicago; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Omaha, Nebraska; Portland, Oregon, and areas of Minnesota, partnering with 118 high schools. It reaches some high schools outside urban centers using video phone calls, texting and other communications tools.

Coaches continue to work with students through their years in college, sending reminders about financial aid deadlines, discussing challenges and linking them to resources. Last year, College possible served 19,000 high school and college students across the nation.

Camellia Brown, the Parkway City Center graduate, got college advising through a College Possible coach at her school. She is now a freshman at Temple University studying public relations. With the help of her coach, she applied for 10 scholarships and received a small one. She also is borrowing about $3,500 a year. To cut costs, she lives at home and commutes.

The process would have been a lot harder to figure out without a coach, she said.

In Philadelphia, College Possible assists a school district that has had particular issues around funding for counselors.

In a budget crisis in 2013, the School District of Philadelphia laid off all school guidance counselors. Later that year, 125 of the 425 counselors were rehired, said Marcus, the high school counselor.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sued the district and in 2016 the court ruled that each Philly school had to have at least one counselor. The district hiring formula now starts with one counselor for every 950 students, Marcus said. The average ratio is 1 to 392, she said.

This history is why the film Personal Statement resonates strongly in Philadelphia. It tells the story of three high school seniors in Brooklyn who assist classmates in applying to college, even while they themselves are facing obstacles, including tracking down a homeless parent to provide information  for a financial aid application.

The film is part of a campaign to inspire young people to aspire to college and to raise awareness about the “college guidance gap,” wrote director/producer Juliane Dressner in an email.

The Philly screening was part of an effort to get more school funding allocated.

While nonprofits may help fill the worst gaps, schools need adequate funding to hire counselors, Marcus said.

“The most important thing is to get certified school counselors with manageable caseloads into these schools so we can work with students individually and meet their needs,” she said.

Stell Simonton is an independent journalist in Atlanta who frequently writes about youth issues for Youth Today. She has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post and Al Jazeera America, and she was formerly a digital editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity initiative featuring reported journalism as part of our effort to illuminate news and trends in the field to
promote a bipartisan dialogue.

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