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College Advising Corps in Kalamazoo County,         Part 2

Sidebar companion to “Our students love it”

Why full-time college advisors?

The consensus is clear: For Michigan’s economy to revive and thrive, more residents need to attain degrees or certification after high school. A projected 65 percent of jobs by 2020 will require at least some college education, yet currently only 38.4 percent of Michigan residents over 25 have a college degree, according to the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN). The network’s goal is for the state to achieve 60 percent educational attainment by 2025.

Michigan's low-income students are much less likely to enroll in college than their peers. According to the Department of Education’s data on college enrollment among high school students who graduated during the 2013-14 school year, about 48 percent of teens who qualified for the subsidized lunch program went to college six months after graduating high school, compared to 70 percent of those who did not qualify. (MLive report: “Michigan college-going rate dips, and 8 other facts on college enrollment.”)

Meanwhile, most Michigan high schools lack one-on-one college advising services. Counselors can try to meet the need, but with just one school counselor for every 706 students on average, it’s nearly impossible. (Michigan has one of the highest student-counselor ratios in the nation, according to Bridge Magazine. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors; the national average was 482-to-1 for the 2012-2013 school year.) Tasked with student scheduling, counseling, maintaining student records, interpreting achievement tests, collaborating with teachers on classroom management and much more, high school counselors with hundreds of kids on their caseloads have their hands full already.

Yet the process of researching, applying to and finding money for college or other post-secondary education is incredibly complex, especially for students in families that don’t have college-going experience. One-on-one guidance is critical.

What does the College Advising Corps (CAC) do?

The National College Advising Corps places recent college graduates in underserved high schools to serve as full-time college advisers, with a goal of helping every senior to create a post-secondary education plan. The CAC uses a “near-peer” model: They recruit young college graduates (up to age 25) who can relate to high school seniors. These grads know the college application process from recent experience. Each adviser goes through extensive training before being placed in a high school.

Since 2010, the Michigan College Access Network has partnered with the National College Advising Corps to establish college advising programs at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. The MSU College Advising Corps, which provides advisers for both Comstock and Galesburg-Augusta High Schools in Kalamazoo County, is a partnership between Michigan State University, AmeriCorps, the National College Advising Corps, MCAN and community partners.

The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo and the College and Career Access Network helped fund the MSU CAC programs at Comstock and Galesburg-Augusta.

Today, the U-M and MSU College Advising Corps collectively hire 42 college advisers serving 52 high schools and 36,000 students (59% of whom qualify for free-and-reduced lunch), according to MCAN. But that still meets only a fraction of the need.

To expand college-advising services to eventually reach the majority of Michigan’s high-need high schools, MCAN recently launched a program called AdviseMI. Similar to the CAC, AdviseMI is a new statewide initiative partnering with 12 Michigan colleges, to recruit, hire, train and support additional advisers. Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo is one of the partner schools, and four WMU grads are among the 40 AdviseMI counselors who started serving 51 Michigan high schools this fall.

How well does it work?

“With these programs, it’s just amazing the difference you see in kids graduating on time and being ready for and attending college,” says Wendy Tackett, Ph.D. Tackett is president of iEval, which provides evaluation services to educational institutions, the healthcare community and nonprofit organizations, including many college access networks and The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.

 

“In our years of evaluating similar programs, this is one that has the biggest impact on high school graduation and college success we’ve seen,” Tackett notes. “I see it as a very valuable investment in the future.” Parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, clergy and peers can all encourage kids to go to college, she says, “but having one person whose role is getting these students ready for college and making sure everything happens to get there makes a huge impact.”

The program’s excellent results at Comstock since 2012-2013 (see “Our students love it”) reflect a general trend of successful outcomes for the MSU Corps. The MSU CAC exceeded national CAC benchmarks in all six key categories for the 2013-2014 school year: College applications, college acceptances, parent meetings, college tours, seniors served and FAFSA completion. Comstock has carefully followed the MSU CAC model, Tackett says. She credits that, plus solid staff support, for their great numbers.

Another sign of the College Advising Corps’ validity is the recent expansion of additional college advising programs, like AdviseMI, to meet demand.

Meet Kalamazoo County’s newest College Advisers

Jimmie Cotter, Comstock High School

Comstock adviser Jimmie Cotter grew up in a family where college-going loomed large. His father, Jim Cotter, is director of admissions at Michigan State University, after all.  “Growing up around MSU admissions, I appreciate the process,” Cotter says. So participating in CAC made perfect sense, not just to enhance his own career but also to give back to the community. Cotter, who graduated from MSU in May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, is keenly aware of his advantages. “I had the best resources in the world – my parents. They were the ones who pressed me and stayed on top of me about going to school. If I didn’t have parents who were familiar with the process, I’m not sure what my college experience would have looked like.”

In his work at Comstock, “I try to put myself in the shoes of the student who doesn’t have the resources I had. It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity I’m happy to have – to be a resource to help students make that leap to a post-secondary opportunity, and guide them to that next step past high school, whether it’s community college, university, trade school or military.”

Cotter especially wants to make sure seniors connect with financial aid. “All students know about loans, but there are a lot of scholarships, plus federal and institutional grants that don’t need to be paid back,” he says. “I don’t think students understand how many opportunities are out there. We’ve been pushing really hard trying to get exposure to scholarships and getting more students to apply.”

That’s where being a “near-peer” helps, Cotter says. “Being close in age, not so far removed from what they’re doing, we’re able to talk about our experience – the application process, getting to and staying in college, financial aid – the many aspects of the college-going experience.” (Read more about Cotter in “Our students love it.”) 

Chelsie Taylor, Galesburg-Augusta High School

Galesburg-Augusta High School is brand new this year to the MSU College Advising Corps. Their adviser, Chelsie Taylor, graduated from MSU with a degree in family-community services. “Being a new advisor in a new program in a new school is a little intimidating,” she says. “But I can’t tell you how supportive the teachers and the counselor I work with have been. And the kids are awesome. They’re all super open to the idea of a college adviser. They’ve warmed up to me really quickly, which is great.”

Just a couple months into the academic year, Taylor already has introduced several college-going initiatives to this small, rural school, where the 2016 senior class is made up of just 64 students. Roughly 56 percent of the high school’s students are eligible for the reduced or free lunch program and 20 percent would be first-generation college enrollees.

In September, Taylor held a “Stepping Beyond G-A” event for parents and students, with mini information sessions featuring representatives from colleges, AmeriCorps, trade schools and the military, plus a panel discussion of college students, talking about the transition from high school.

For College Application Week in October, Taylor coordinated games, trivia, teacher participation (“Ask Me About My College”) and raffles for prizes like a Chromebook and gift cards to Waterstreet Coffee Joint and Climb Kalamazoo – all to encourage seniors to think past high school and submit at least three college applications by the end of the week. “It sparked the interest of the kids. They were applying left and right,” Taylor says. By the end of that Friday, 80 percent of seniors had completed at least one application, and 35 percent of those seniors applied to three or more. She expects the total number of applications, now at 145, to continue growing.

One student Taylor helped that week was a young man who thought college would never be an option for him. “He comes from a farming and automotive background. His parents are both in the skilled trades and didn’t go to college, so he thought he’d follow that path,” Taylor explains. The student is in a dual-enrollment program for automotive technology through Education for Employment, so he spends part of his school days working on cars. “We found an automotive program within a college setting, so he could actually go to college and still do what he wants to do. So I sat down with him and went through the application and called the admissions office. He submitted it yesterday. He was just so happy, and it felt really good to help him.”

Every student has a story, Taylor says. “I don’t’ just sit down and say, ‘Okay, where are you applying today?’ I ask personal history questions. ‘What do your parents think of you going to college? What do you want compared to what your parents want?’ It’s been so cool getting to know them one-on-one and seeing what their passions and interests are.”

Taylor worked with another senior whose grades had plummeted in sophomore year. When she talked with him, the student opened up about family upheaval during that time, including the loss of a parent and a short-lived move out of the state. His parents didn’t go to college, but he really wants to go, Taylor says. He’d like to study journalism or creative writing; he earned a 31 in writing on the ACT college entrance exam. “He’s just an all-around awesome kid,” Taylor enthuses. “His essay for Grand Valley [State University] just blew me away. You can really tell the passion and the drive when he talks. Seeing somebody who has gone through so much at such a young age but still is pushing on, it’s fascinating.”

Next, Taylor is set on igniting the college conversation beyond school grounds. She’s implementing a College Ambassador program, only the sixth one established in Michigan by MSU CAC advisors. She and school staff selected 10 student ambassadors from 21 applicants, a mix of juniors and seniors. “They’re going to help me promote post-secondary education within the school and community,” she says. That includes “doing presentations to underclassmen about college throughout the year, starting them thinking about college at a younger age.” Ambassadors will also help with events like College Decision Day in May, which showcases each senior’s post-secondary plans. “We’re going to invite community members and hopefully some news people. It’s about bringing the community into the school to celebrate the success of the seniors,” Taylor explains. The students could also set up information booths at sporting events, promoting the College Ambassadors program and the importance of college.

“It’s basically just spreading the college-going culture throughout the community,” Taylor says. “It’s awesome having 10 students, because with their friend groups and their families, they can really spread the word much easier than I would be able to,” as a newcomer.

She may be new, but it’s clear Taylor already has started a lively conversation in this community about “stepping beyond G-A.”

Learn more about the experiences of MSU College Advising Corps members at https://msucollegeadvisingcorps.wordpress.com/