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How guidance counselors can find the right college for low-income teenagers
Overwhelmed and underresourced, guidance counselors need more manpower and better systems to help low income students get to the next level, research group argues. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Getting from high school to college is no easy task for low-income teenagers. Teachers are busy teaching. Parents, who usually did not attend college themselves, don't know where to begin.

And in most urban high schools, guidance counselors are overwhelmed. At some California high schools, one guidance counselor is expected to work with 1,000 students, according to Crystal Byndloss, a senior research associate at MDRC, one of the nation's leading nonprofit social policy research groups.

Most states are not doing much better. The national average is well over 450 students per counselor, although the Education Commission of the States recommends 250 or fewer.

Many teenagers who could have gone to more elite schools that would push them and create greater opportunities will often end up at lower-tier colleges. The gap between natural promise and where a student lands is now widely known as "undermatching."

"We know that there is an information gap," Byndloss said. "A lot of students are not aware of their options. A lot of students think college is college."

Byndloss is the lead author of a new guide for guidance counselors published by MDRC that aims to help counselors tackle undermatching by creating a "match culture" in the school.

Creating a culture

The guide grows out of experience with the MRDC College Match pilot program, which put recent college graduates into low-income high schools. They offered intensive mentoring to kids whose parents and peers could not give them the sort of guidance needed to get into college.

One of the key arguments in the guide is that, while technological tools can help, there is no substitute for human interaction to nudge and push kids forward.

While important information can be offered through automated resources, Byndloss argues, there is an important human element that only a savvy and proactive guidance counselor can offer.

The guide offers counselors specific steps including setting up a detailed timeline so that key milestones are met, encouraging students to take the ACT or SAT early, developing a list of nearby schools and their strengths, weaknesses and resources; keeping parents informed; and finding partners in the community, to name a few.

Match & fit

"We talk about match and fit," Byndloss said. "Match refers to the academic suitability of the college, and fit refers to everything else. Can you pull this off financially? Do you feel comfortable on that campus? What resources do they offer to make sure that you get your degree?"

The MDRC guide encourages counselors to get to know the schools in their region in great detail, creating a match list of key variables that would matter to the students they're advising, beyond just scores and grades.

"Sometimes the best academic match doesn't turn out to be the best school for the student," Byndloss said.

"I would imagine it would be very helpful for guidance not just for counselors but for anyone trying to understand the college admissions process," said Mariko Silver, president of Bennington College in Vermont and a former key aide to President Michael Crow at Arizona State University.

Silver saw the detailed timeline and other structural tools in the MDRC guide as helpful. She also noted the valuable distinction between "academic match" and "personal fit." Academic match is the test score and GPA matrix that signals whether a student can compete with other applicants. Personal fit is the mix of personal factors temperament, personal goals and comfort level with the schools culture. Fit, Silver says, is "extraordinarily important and very underemphasized" in preparing kids for college.

Evaluating and advocating

But not everyone is thrilled with MDRC's efforts.

MDRC is a prominent educational evaluator with a solid reputation for evaluating outcomes of other group's programs, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education policy and sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin.

But MDRC plays another role that Goldrick-Rab sees as a conflict of interest. "They dream up an intervention, do an intervention and evaulate it themselves," she said. "As an evaluator myself, I have a hard time with that."

Goldrick-Rab said that MDRC does excellent work, and she considers at least one member of MDRCs College Match program team to be a genius. But she also fears that MDRC has a tendency to oversell such dual-involvement projects, where the organization first conceives and implements the project, and then evaluates its outcome. Filling those two roles undermines objectivity, Goldrick-Rab said.

She points to a similar project by MDRC, which she says was also "oversold." This one was called "Aid Like a Paycheck," which paid financial aid to junior college students in biweekly installments to help them stretch it over the semester, helping them manage their finances, keep them stable through the semester and avoid the kinds of crash and burn episodes that plague many low income college students.

Aid Like a Paycheck was reported in Inside Higher Ed as "promising" after its first year in 2011, but there were no data and no impact claims because MRDC did not do a randomized study. But as with the College Match program, MDRCs dual involvement with Aid Like a Paycheck lured MDRC to overstate, Goldrick-Rab argues.

Alternatives solutions?

With educational resources extremely tight, skeptics like Goldrick-Rab are concerned that pilot programs that lack tight analysis might divert energy and resources in to unproven programs. There are already a handful of programs doing very similar work to MDRC's College Match program.

The College Advising Corps, for instance, actually seems to closely parallel the MDRC College Match program, but it has been in full swing since 2005. CAC places recent college graduates as counselors in low-income schools. Originally launched at the University of Virginia, CAC is now a stand-alone nonprofit with more than 500 advisers. To date, it has served over 543,000 students in every corner of the country.

A similar program in Washington state intervenes earlier and more intensely. Ranier Scholars is a competitive program that finds promising 5th graders, all underprivileged ethnic minorities, and puts them through an 11-year journey that includes an intense science, math, literature and history enrichment program over two summers followed by monthly meetings and weekly tutoring in high school. Participants also attend leadership retreats, do community volunteer works and, of course, get college guidance counseling.

Which of these interventions offers the most bang for the buck? No one really knows yet. In fact, some skeptics like Goldrick-Rab argues that we don't yet know enough about the undermatching problem to really define it, let alone identify best methods to solve it.

And even Byndloss acknowledges that MDRC had hoped to test the College Match program by random assignment but could not get the funding.

So the guide MDRC produced is based on insights gained from working with 1,200 students in 10 large public high schools in Chicago and New York City. The "encouraging outcomes" noted in the guide, Blydloss said, are not formal research results. In other words, Goldrick-Rab says, the MDRC guide is based on anecdotal experience not hard evidence. Blydloss said MDRC is anxious to test College Match more rigorously if it can find the funding.

Mariko Silver agrees that at this moment with so much attention focused on access to college for low-income students it is essential to get better data. "We clearly need to better understand why students end up at colleges where they are less likely to succeed."

Even MDRC seems to agree.

"At a minimum," MDRC says on its College Match website, "MDRC believes there is value in rigorously testing and comparing a variety of approaches to combat the undermatching problem."
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