JKCF Executive Director Levy on Getting Poor Kids into the College Club

Getting poor kids into the college club: A crucial challenge, lest we squander America’s potential

Monday, March 30, 2015
THURSDAY, MAY 26, 2011 PHOTO; ADVANCE FOR USE IN WEEKEND EDITIONS OF JUNE 25-26, 2011 AND THEREAFTER Wilfredo Lee/AP College counselors are few and far between

It’s a quintessential middle-class American experience: The family watches the mail or the email for a letter from the college their oldest daughter desperately wants to attend.

She visited the campus several times and must have six different t-shirts and sweatshirts with the school’s logo on them. She took all the right classes and even took an SAT prep course to make sure her scores measured up.

She knows what she’ll do if she gets in. The family has at least the beginning of a gameplan to pay.

It’s a starkly different experience for families whose parents did not attend college. They’re typically low-income, and they’re completely on their own.

It isn’t that their parents don’t care about academic success. It’s that the entire experience is exotic and intimidating to them, and they feel that they wouldn’t know where to begin to help their child.

Instead, it’s up to the high-school guidance and college counselors to lead the way. Uh oh.

Guidance staff is rarely up to the task. That’s because in many school districts, the last vestige of power that a principal has is to reassign a teacher he or she perceives is unqualified to be in a classroom to be a guidance counselor, “where they can do no harm.”

In my own case, my parents were Jewish émigrés from Germany who neither attended college nor had any familiarity with U.S. higher education. I knew that they expected me to attend college — but I was completely at the mercy of my guidance counselor.

Apparently because I had led protests against the Vietnam War, she advised me that I only had the grades to get into City College — and that was after City University had adopted open enrollment!

I remember going home and crying. Had it not been for the advice of a friend’s mother to apply to one of Cornell University’s relatively inexpensive statutory colleges, I would have been lost.

College counseling is simply a backwater. In New York — as in almost every other state — it is not licensed as a separate profession or accorded its own career path.

Rather, people trained as guidance counselors are asked to provide college counseling, as though expertise in dealing with psychoses qualifies one to analyze college placement reports or be knowledgeable about which colleges do a good job at supporting vulnerable low-income students.

Add to this that the average caseload nationally for college counselors is roughly 500 students per counselor. When I was New York schools chancellor, there was one counselor for 1,200 students at DeWitt Clinton High School. I will doubtlessly go to a warmer place in the hereafter for having tolerated that.

The issue got visibility with a 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found that 53% of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to even a single selective college with average grades and test scores matching theirs.

More recently, an Education Trust report found that 22% of high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to college at all. That’s a national disgrace, a self-inflicted wound in our effort to remain competitive.

We have to raise the profile of smart students from low- and moderate-income families to get them to college, and hopefully to selective ones.

These kids must be identified in the earliest grades, supported with gifted programs, accelerated coursework equal to their talents and challenging extracurricular opportunities.

Throughout high school, they need quality guidance to prepare properly for selective schools, so that they take the advanced courses colleges require, navigate the application process and know their financial options.

The nation’s colleges need to do their part, recruiting outside of their usual target areas, accommodating highly successful community colleges students seeking to transfer and offering high performing, low-income students on-campus support.

These students represent the greatest promise for social mobility in America — and they are effectively being abandoned. We need to do better.

Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, was city schools chancellor from 2000-02.