NYC Needs More College Counselors

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Bronx Community College graduates make their big walk in May, 2010.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

Bronx Community College graduates make their big walk in May, 2010.

When Nkese Rankine, a high school senior at an underfunded public school in Brooklyn, was accepted to Bates College, her anxiety focused on a subject much-discussed by educators and policy makers: was she ready for college?

Nkese was a school leader with a 90 average and analytical skills that impressed her teachers. Her history teacher, who had a graduate degree in the subject, called Nkese the best student she had ever had. But Nkese’s writing was full of grammatical errors, and she would not have been deemed college-ready according to the New York City Department of Education’s measures, which rely largely on how students score on the SAT, ACT, or COMPASS exam, the City University of New York’s placement test.

With the help of her school’s college counselor, Nkese found a highly selective college that recognized the potential she demonstrated in her academic record, interview, essays and letters of recommendation. But Nkese feared that the gaps in her education, and particularly the weaknesses in her writing, might scuttle her chances for success there.

Nkese struggled through her first year at Bates. Her academic challenges were compounded by difficulty adjusting to a majority-white campus that was distant, geographically and culturally, from her home in East Flatbush. But four years later, Nkese graduated from Bates as a high-power student leader. She double-majored in women and gender studies and politics, with a minor in German, and was named twice to the college’s dean’s list. She spent a semester abroad in a gender studies program in Europe.

As a senior, she took leadership of several student activist organizations, facilitated a college-wide forum on discrimination, and consulted with the college’s Board of Trustees on issues of diversity on campus.

With wide acceptance of the importance of a college degree, U.S. school systems have increasingly focused on cultivating and measuring “college readiness,” understood as what students should accomplish by the end of high school in order to be prepared for college. But most system-wide measures of college-readiness still rely on performance on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, which obscure the promise of low-income students of color. What’s more, whether students make it through college depends on factors that are not part of the college-readiness equation.

With a college landscape defined by racial and economic inequity and riddled with risk, high schools should not only ask how to better equip students with the skills they need for college: they must also take responsibility for increasing students’ chances of graduating with a meaningful degree.

A crucial variable in Nkese’s success was her high school’s decision to hire a counselor who could help her identify the best college match. A position called “college counselor” does not formally exist in the budgets of New York City public schools, and it is rare that students have someone to guide them through the college process. A 2012 report by the New York City Comptroller’s office noted that over half of all high school students reported receiving college guidance “never, rarely, or only sometimes.”

Applying to college is difficult even for the most highly educated families, and without quality, individualized support and advocacy throughout the college planning, admission and financial aid processes, it is it is almost impossible for low-income students to access the kinds of choices they deserve.

When, just before her senior year began, Nkese heard that her school had hired a college counselor, Joshua Steckel, she contacted him right away. Nkese had always known she wanted to go to college and aim high, but was familiar with few colleges outside the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Ivy League. She had received many applications in the mail but didn’t know where to begin. These applications, as Josh saw during their first meeting, had been sent to her home by colleges that relied heavily on mass-market mailings, attracting students by making them feel as though they had been recruited.

Without guidance, it would have been be very hard for Nkese to identify, among institutions that promise financial support and meaningful career pathways, those that actually deliver. And for a first-generation college student and the daughter of an immigrant, most liberal arts colleges were completely unknown or seemingly inaccessible because of the cost of attendance.

Nkese made it clear she did not want to stay in New York City and attend CUNY, as had been the case for the vast majority of the school’s previous graduates who attended college. Though Josh urged her to apply to CUNY as a backup, he supported this way of thinking. Nkese was a top student with high ambitions, but because of her SAT scores she would only be admitted to two-year or open admissions programs within the CUNY system. Not only did these schools lack the intellectual engagement and extracurricular life Nkese craved, but they would also reduce her chances of earning a degree: qualified low-income students who attend selective colleges graduate at much higher rates than students with similar qualifications who attend community colleges.

Using knowledge he had gained in his previous work with scholarship students at a private school, Josh helped Nkese to identify schools that offer funding and support for low-income students, as well as those that had made a commitment to recruiting students from “underrepresented populations,” including first generation college students and students of color. That year, Bates College was making a particular effort to look outside its known network of private schools and well-resourced public schools and seek out promising students who were usually off the radar of selective colleges. After a process filled with obstacles, near-misses, and bureaucratic tangles, Nkese decided to take the leap to attend Bates, a college she had never visited.

During her time at Bates, Nkese overcame her initial challenges with help from a college that had made a commitment to giving students the supports they needed to graduate. In the college’s “swing dean” system, the admissions counselor who had recruited Nkese switched to a role in student life during her first year, in order to continue to support the same cohort of students. In her sophomore year, Nkese played the role of mentor to incoming freshman during a “swing dean retreat,” speaking with new freshmen, including students of color and those from low-income families, about her own difficulties adjusting.

And though Nkese continued to feel that the college had work to do in cultivating an atmosphere that was genuinely embracing of a diverse population, she was bolstered by a sense that the effort to change was deeply embedded at the highest levels of administration and that it extended into academic and student life.

Standardized measurements of college-readiness render invisible some of the country’s most promising students. And with a college landscape filled with bad choices, being “college-ready”—even if it were measured more accurately—does not guarantee college success. To improve their chances of graduating with meaningful degrees, students must be matched with high quality institutions of higher education that commit to funding students adequately and transparently and to providing the support structures students need to study and grow.

Even as educators and policy-makers undertake a large-scale rethink of how best to serve all students, let’s recognize that good choices exist and that we owe it to students to help them access them. Every public high school should have a trained college counselor with a reasonable caseload of students.

This op-ed was adapted from Zasloff and Steckel’s book Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty.

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