College Advising Corps in Kalamazoo County, Part 1
“Our students love it”
College advisers help Comstock seniors navigate higher education
KALAMAZOO, MICH. – Fear. That was Justin Hansen’s reaction a few years ago to the idea of going to college. “Honestly, I really just was afraid, because it seemed like a lot of money and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,” he recalls. “I always thought college would be beneficial to progress further in life, but at the same time it could be something that would hurt me, because of financial aid – like student loans, and having a bunch of debt to start my life.”
Today, Hansen has a whole new outlook. The 17-year-old Comstock High School senior will be the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree, and he’s applying to the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University. “I’m feeling much better about it,” he says. “I feel like I have really good chances to be able to get into college and to get all the aid I need.”
Credit for that certainly goes largely to Hansen – he worked hard, got great grades and earned a score of 30 on the ACT, putting him in the 95th percentile among test-takers.
But it was a young member of Michigan State University’s College Advising Corps (MSU CAC) who allayed Hansen’s fear, pointing out that he could potentially get a full-ride package to earn his dream degree in computer engineering. That adviser, Jimmie Cotter, worked one-on-one with Hansen to show him a world of higher-education possibilities he didn’t know existed.
Call in the Corps
Cotter is one of 32 recent MSU graduates serving one- or two-year terms as full-time college advisers in 38 of Michigan’s underserved high schools, helping low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students successfully navigate the college enrollment process. MSU CAC advisers are trained to help seniors make post-secondary educational plans, find programs that meet their career objectives, complete admissions and financial aid applications, search for scholarships and prepare to succeed in a four-year or two-year college, trade school or the military.
The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo and the College and Career Access Network helped fund MSU CAC positions in Comstock and Galesburg-Augusta high schools, in collaboration with the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) and the national College Advising Corps.
In a district where 66% percent of students qualify for the reduced or free lunch program, Comstock High School, in particular, has achieved some remarkable results since first welcoming a College Advising Corps mentor in 2012. Seniors graduating in 2014 were:
- 11% more likely to visit a college campus
- 27% more likely to attend a financial aid workshop
- 22% more likely to submit their FAFSA
- 16% more likely to apply to one or more colleges
- 13% more likely to apply to three or more colleges
- 18% more likely to be accepted to one or more colleges
- Comstock seniors in 2014 earned an average of $15, 736 in scholarships, compared to $11,384 among all Michigan students in the MSU CAC program and $8,923 among national CAC programs.
- The number of Comstock seniors completing at least one college application rose from 86% in the 2012-2013 school year to 100% in 2014-2015, and the number accepted to at least one college rose from 80% to 100%.
- 49% of Comstock seniors submitted a deposit to a college in 2014, compared to 40% of seniors across the state in the MSU CAC program and 26% among national CAC programs.
“Bringing the MSU College Advising Corps to Comstock clearly opened gateways for these students,” says Learning Network Director Amy Slancik. “Kids who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks are in college right now, studying for exams, learning new skills, looking forward to good careers.” Comstock showed the power of evidence-based college/career counseling, and now it’s time to build on that success throughout Kalamazoo County, Slancik maintains. “For The Learning Network and the College and Career Action Network, that means working with our partners to make high-quality college advising available in more schools as soon as possible.” She adds that since CACAN aims to boost post-secondary enrollment for low-income students from 53 percent to 68 percent by 2020, this model could be a key driver in reaching that goal.
Aid beyond expectations
Hansen is a prime example of the MSU CAC’s outreach. “He’s a very high-achieving student and very high-need, financially. He has endured a lot and overcome a lot of obstacles,” says Cotter, 22, who started at Comstock in September as the school’s fourth CAC placement. “We were talking about what his plans were. He had a 30 on his ACT and a 3.6-3.7 GPA, and I said, ‘Do you know how incredible this score is?’ And he said, ‘Well, when I got my ACT letter back I saw ‘30.’ Then I just set it down and didn’t think much of it.’” Cotter also was stunned to hear that Hansen didn’t realize top colleges were courting him. “He’d been getting letters from all these schools and he hadn’t even opened them. He thought that was just what happened, that you get a bunch of letters from schools.”
So Cotter set about “helping Justin realize how special he is, how incredible a student he is, and translating that into the immense opportunities he’s going to have. I’m more than confident that we’re going to be able to get him a lot of aid money.” Without Cotter’s assistance, Hansen could have easily lost his way in the higher-education maze. “He taught me a lot. I literally started out knowing nothing about applying to college,” Hansen admits.
It’s not only students like Hansen – high-achieving academic standouts -- who benefit from the CAC program, of course. Advisers are trained to help students at all levels connect with a wide range of opportunities. For students who are high-need but academically average, “we aim at a more broad college exposure, and talk about how accessible post-secondary education can be – particularly community college and transfer possibilities,” Cotter says. Also, “discussions involving grants and federal aid become even more important, especially because institutional aid [based on merit] may not be an option.”
According to Comstock’s Dean of Students, Gerielle Stewart, the MSU CAC program is one piece of a long-term effort to build a college-going culture in Comstock. “It’s 100 percent to the benefit of students,” Stewart says of the college adviser model. “It’s completely about helping them understand post-secondary education, getting them there and being prepared.” She’s grateful that community partners like The Learning Network saw the value of CAC and made it financially possible to bring advisers on site. “We have a lot of first-generation students, and it’s labor-intensive to help them. So it’s great to have someone whose sole focus is on the seniors, and on how to make the best happen for them.”
Filling the advice gap
Focused attention like that can be hard to come by in most high schools: Counselors attend to a wide range of student needs, not just college planning – and they have huge caseloads. (See sidebar.)
Evan Pauken, coordinator of The Learning Network’s College and Career Action Network, works closely with the Kalamazoo County CAC advisers. He remembers how “even when I was in high school, the ratio of students to counselors was so large it would be nearly impossible to give students the depth of information that the college advisers can. Having somebody whose whole job is to focus on post-secondary education and getting students the resources, handing them the scholarship applications and giving them one more person to encourage them – that’s irreplaceable.”
Lenisa Daniels, Comstock’s MSU CAC adviser last year (she accepted another job with the school this summer), is an example of the extra mile college advisers can go on behalf of students. When a few seniors were granted deferred admission to MSU, meaning they were qualified but not immediately admitted, “Lenisa helped these students advocate for themselves to the admissions office, and they were able to start in the fall,” Stewart explains. “And it wasn’t Lenisa doing it for them, but showing them how they can self-advocate.”
Comstock’s staff embraces the MSU CAC concept and the young advisers who become integrated into school life, Stewart emphasizes. “We do see the college advisers as part of our team. They do everything with us, including staff meetings and professional development.”
Deferments, transfer programs, grants, federal aid: The path to a college degree can be dauntingly complex. By providing personal guidance, the MSU CAC model “has been an essential part of increasing the population of students who are able to move on” to post-secondary education, Pauken says. Plus, “Our students love it,” Stewart says. “They completely understand the role and are very appreciative of what that person brings to our school for them.”
As the college application season goes into high gear, Justin Hansen has advice for other seniors in his situation: “Look into schools and grants, even if you don’t think you want to go to college. Just see how much money you could get to help you.” In other words, fight the fear. It’s worth it.