Originally published in March 2011
I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.
The bad news first -– Texas has a critical shortage of school guidance counselors and this means many students who are academically capable of getting into college but need help with the application process won’t end up attending. To make matters worse, the schools most affected by the shortage have large low-income student populations.
Iván Medina (Business), Abigail Young-Sing (Human Biology) and Alison Najera (Communication) are May 2010 University of Texas at Austin graduates now working as Advise TX advisers in San Antonio, Texas high schools. They are pictured here in Jefferson High School, where Alison was placed as an adviser.Photo: George Brainard
Now the good news –- The University of Texas at Austin’s Advise TX is hiring talented new graduates from four-year universities to help students in several high-need Texas high schools tackle the college application process. Advise TX is in the College of Education’s Institute for Public School Initiatives and, like Americorps, Teach for America and the Peace Corps, it’s tapping into many new graduates’ spirit of community service.
The College of Education’s Institute for Public School Initiatives launched Advise TX (initially called Texas College Advising Corps) last year. Partnerships with the College for All Texans Foundation, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, TG and Bank of America have allowed Advise TX to place counselors in 15 Houston, Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio high schools. The project will be expanding this fall, adding 120 Texas high schools from the 266 that have applied and hiring 50 new graduates to fill the full-time adviser positions.
Each school will receive one adviser, and what a difference that one will make.
According to a study done by Stanford University, the advising corps has the potential to improve college attendance rates by 10 percent or more, which means that Advise TX is poised to help send an additional 10,000 low-income students per year to college.
“Advise TX is part of the National College Advising Corps, which is a national movement lead by universities to help historically underrepresented high school students enroll in college,” said Matt Orem, Advise TX director. “In Texas, the ratio of students to counselors is almost 400 to one and counselors get to spend, on average, only around 20 minutes with each high school senior. That’s 20 minutes to talk to them about what the SAT is, help them schedule to take the test, choose colleges, help fill out college applications, explain financial aid options, help them fill out financial aid paperwork –- it’s impossible.
Matt Orem is the director of Advise TX.
“A national study done in 2004 showed that half of the eight million undergraduates enrolled in colleges and universities didn’t complete financial aid eligibility paperwork, and more than 20 percent of them would have been eligible for the need-based Pell Grant. If no one’s available to help students find universities to apply to, navigate the admissions paperwork and apply for financial aid, many students simply will end up not attending college. Most of the students that our advisers help don’t have parents who’ve gone to college or brothers or sisters who are familiar with the process –- a lot of them will be the first in their families to graduate from high school.”
A chance to help students who have the necessary academic skills but not the financial resources is the main reason University of Texas at Austin graduate Abigail Young Sing applied last year to be part of the advising corps. Advise TX accepts graduates from a variety of fields, so Abigail’s degree in human biology rather than education didn’t preclude her from being considered and selected.
University of Texas at Austin graduates chosen for this first year’s Texas corps have come from the Colleges of Liberal Arts, Communication, Education, Natural Sciences and the McCombs School of Business.
“As soon as I read the job description, I knew I wanted to apply for the job,” Abigail said. “I had gone through the college application process just a few years earlier myself and also had recently helped one of my younger sisters apply to college so I knew how much help one needed, even someone who was reasonably savvy. I was interviewed by program director Emily Watson, and she was so passionate about the organization that all I could do after I left the interview was picture myself as a college adviser. I was absolutely dying to get a call back telling me I was in.”
Abigail did get the much-anticipated call and, with the 14 other advisers who’d been chosen, soon began four weeks of summer training in preparation for placement at South San Antonio High School.
“The training was excellent,” she said. “Several education veterans and experts taught us all about financial aid, admissions, school administration, how to interact with parents, student transfers, locating community resources and a host of other topics that would be very relevant once we were on the job. During the third week of training we traveled to a several different universities, received grand tours, and talked to students, admissions officers and financial aid representatives.
“As advisers, we must help students make individualized choices as to which college to attend, so this opportunity to familiarize ourselves with other schools was crucial. In the last week of training, we traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the national corps members and were able to interact with advisers like us from other states. We attended workshops, lectures, brainstorming sessions and spoke with advisers who’d already served a year and could relate their experiences. We even were able to visit the Capitol and meet with politicians to hear how they’re addressing education-related issues.”
At San Antonio High School, where Abigail is an adviser, the student body is about 95 percent Hispanic and many of those aren’t English-language proficient.
Because of the demographics –- low-income families in which the parents may not have graduated from high school and also may not speak English -– and counselors with multiple competing priorities, the school has not been able to provide regular college planning assistance to students.
“I’m not sure most people know just how much a high school counselor does,” said Abigail. “They’re responsible for registering students for classes and counseling students who have disciplinary problems, problems at home, students who are being bullied, who are skipping school –- you name it. Their plates are full and overflowing.
“Offering help with college attendance is only one part of the job, but it’s a very important part, especially at a school such as mine. “
Since being at San Antonio High, Abigail has introduced herself to all of the senior classes and given lots of presentations on the value of getting a college education, what success means, what a major is and how to choose one, university options, what it’s like to live away from home and how to get through the application process.
She’s worked one-on-one with numerous seniors, helping them register for the SAT and ACT, complete college applications and essays, and research financial aid possibilities.
“Right now, I’m working on putting up what we’re calling the ‘College Wall,’” said Abigail. “On it there are photos of our seniors who’ve been accepted to four-year universities, showing their names and the names of the universities they’ll be attending. This is going to be displayed at the front of the school and is just one of the initiatives we’ve got in place to recognize the great achievements of the students. After all, many of them are blazing a completely new trail in their family, this school and their community.”
As the spring semester speeds toward May and the end of another school year, Abigail reports, “Things are looking really good at South San!” So far, she’s had 100 seniors apply to four-year universities and all around the school there’s evidence that a “college culture” is beginning to take hold.
In addition to relieving the overwhelming workloads of counselors already on staff and helping low-income students get into college, Advise TX has another substantial upside – it’s economical.
At a cost of about $22 per student served, it’s a highly efficient and effective way of improving access to higher education. Research done for the National College Advising Corps revealed that similar programs cost around $1,500 or more per student served.
Advise TX projects that, along with its new partners at Texas A&M, Rice University, Trinity University and Texas Christian University, the 120 advisers who will be on staff next year will provide services to about 200,000 Texas students.
As former University of Texas Board of Regents Chairman Charles Miller says about the advising corps, “Truly, lives will not only be enhanced but will be saved for many students -– and it’s just the beginning.”
Q&A with Andria Schur
Principal, Houston ISD’s Barbara Jordan High School
How many counselors do you have per student?
We were, and are, fortunate to have one counselor per grade level here at the high school, and there are about 270 students in each grade. The counselors were, however, unable to give students the personal attention and in-depth focus on college bound activities that our Advise TX adviser is providing.
Can you describe the student population at your school? Are most of the families affluent? Are the majority of students English language learners? African American? College bound?
As far as ethnicity, about 54 percent of our students are African American and around 46 percent are Hispanic. Almost all of the students will be first generation college attendees, and a good portion of them will be first generation high school graduates. This year 100 percent of our seniors will be graduating — last year all but one graduated and that one will be doing so this year. Of our 284 seniors, 86 percent are enrolled in a two- or four-year college and we have a goal of 100 percent being enrolled before graduation.
How has the Advise TX adviser been able to help ease some of the burden for the guidance counselors?
Our guidance counselors usually have opportunities to make general announcements and get together whole assemblies regarding SAT registration or availability of scholarships, but our Advise TX adviser is able to track down individual students to assist in registration and scholarship applications, as well as with follow-up submissions. This has been the greatest advantage of the advisers and has made an enormous difference as far as helping students go to college who probably never would have otherwise.
The adviser we were assigned is absolutely amazing and she has, to a certain extent, set new expectations for what a senior counselor needs to be able to do. I couldn’t ask for more –- she’s very internally driven to see students succeed and go to college. Her sincere passion has broken down all cultural barriers and has impacted the lives of all my seniors.
Photo of Matt Orem: Marsha Miller