Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates the COVID-19 pandemic is exacting a punishing toll on low-income students. College enrollment among this group dropped 29% in 2020, compared with a 17% decline among students at higher income high schools.
As troubling as that ratio is, its historical context is even more so. Low-income students have been left behind, not just in 2020, but for decades.
Despite recent improvements, the group attends college at less than half the rate of their richer counterparts, and those who do go often attend lower-quality schools. As it has in other areas, COVID-19 is laying bare, brutally, a longstanding societal inequity.
While the reasons for this disparity are numerous, among the most important is the yawning gap in guidance and college counseling between rich and poor school districts.
Affluent districts are able to generously staff their guidance offices, and students often supplement in-school support with expensive private counseling. By contrast, ratios of 900 students to one counselor aren’t uncommon in poorer districts, almost four times the maximum rate recommended by the American College Counseling Association, for a population that needs more, not less, support.
And the situation is worsening. Far from growing their guidance staffs, schools have been forced to cut budgets and personnel in the COVID era. Guidance counselors are often the first to go.
How everyday citizens can help
So what can be done to provide students in underserved communities with the information and encouragement they need and deserve?
I’d like to propose a radically democratic solution: that everyday citizens — shop owners, police officers, bankers, nurses, coaches and more — step in to fill the breach, functioning as citizen counselors, informing and inspiring students about why they deserve to go to college and how to get there.
The idea may seem impractical, even pie-in-the-sky, but it is already being done.
Through its College MAP program, now in its 10th year, the big-four accounting firm EY dispatches hundreds of its employees — many the first in their families to attend college — to high schools in 38 metropolitan areas, where they share their experiences and recount their often twisting paths to higher education.
The goal is both to inspire and to provide nuts and bolts information, as college counselors do, about financial aid and the college application process. Over the years, the program has reached more than 2,000 students, 90% of whom go on to college.
In a similar program, Colgate-Palmolive employees recently spoke about their pathways to college with 1,800 high school students.
And my own non-profit organization, CFES Brilliant Pathways, which has been creating partnerships between underserved K-12 schools and colleges since 1991, launched a new program just a year ago, CCR Advisor Training, that does exactly what I am proposing.
In the year the program has been in existence, we have trained more than 500 ordinary citizens, from locations around the country, to function as para-college counselors ready to work with students individually or in groups.
More volunteers are needed
These programs are a step in the right direction. But given the scope of the problem, we need many more volunteers, in communities across the country, to step up.
How do we prepare legions of ordinary citizens to take on this role? Ideally volunteers would contact an organization like ours, which helped both EY and Colgate-Palmolive create their outreach programs, for training.
But they wouldn’t have to.
A school principal I spoke with recently said she was intrigued by the idea of deploying citizen para-counselors in her school and would take on the training herself. If volunteers have a child who has recently gone through the college application process, or if they have done so themselves in recent years, that is a powerful foundation to build on.
While we are in for a rough several months, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines means that the end may be in sight for the pandemic and its many pernicious consequences.
But afterward, we’ll still be left with the structural issue of depressed college attendance rates for low-income students — and the diminished expectations that result. Fully two-thirds of all jobs and 80% of jobs that pay a median of $65,000 or more require postsecondary education, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
By creating a core of trained citizen-counselors to inform and inspire underserved students, we could collectively put an end to another debilitating contagion: Unequal access to the many benefits of a college degree.
(This essay originally appeared: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/02/22/how-volunteer-counselors-can-help-more-students-attend-college-column/4386945001/)
Rick Dalton is CEO and president of CFES Brilliant Pathways.
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