When Michael Forbes, a student at an underfunded public school in Brooklyn, received his college admissions results, most would have expected him to be thrilled with his range of choices. Mike, who was living in a homeless shelter, was accepted to five prestigious New York State liberal arts colleges, as well as Morehouse College and Clark-Atlanta University. Most offered him substantial funding as well as academic and social support. But Mike told the college counselor at his high school that he had decided to stay in New York City and attend the less selective Brooklyn College. He did not even want to visit the other colleges to which he had been accepted.
Joshua Steckel, Mike’s counselor, was not completely surprised. Though Mike had thrown himself into the process of applying to highly selective residential colleges, in recent months he had become increasingly doubtful about whether leaving New York City was the right thing to do. Mike’s mother, who was battling stomach cancer, worked 15-hour days and depended on Mike to care for his two younger brothers. Mike wanted to get away, but he didn’t want to leave his mother on her own and feared what might happen to his brothers without his presence and positive influence. To Josh, what had at first seemed like a common-sense decision—that a student who was homeless would accept a full scholarship to a highly selective residential college—no longer seemed so simple.
Josh had left a private school job two years before to begin work at Mike’s school as its first college counselor. One of his goals was to help students gain access to the kinds of four-year colleges in which his previous, more advantaged students enrolled. Josh believed that for many of his new students, attending a residential liberal arts college would provide opportunities for transformative growth and a pathway to the middle class. But perhaps the best option for Mike was to attend the City University of New York, whose application had taken 20 minutes to fill out. Josh knew that the CUNY experience could be bureaucratic and impersonal and that Mike would still have to study under the daily stress of holding his family together. But staying in Brooklyn would allow Mike to move forward with his education without launching into a world that would distance him, physically and psychologically, from the people he loved.
Throughout his two years of work with Mike, Josh saw himself in the traditional role of a college advisor: marshaling his college admissions knowledge and experience to guide Mike through the application process. He had helped Mike make lists, fill out the Common Application, write essays, prepare for interviews, and complete the endless legwork required of low-income students—including assembling financial documents to confirm eligibility for the state’s opportunity programs, collecting third party letters attesting that Mike’s father did not contribute to the family’s income, and completing federal, state, and institutional aid applications. Now, with all the forms submitted and the acceptance letters received, Mike needed a different kind of guidance from Josh. He needed help making a choice that set his dreams for his future against his responsibility for his family.
The vast majority of American high school students receive little guidance from college counselors. According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education survey, public school students receive an average of 38 minutes of college admissions advice from their guidance counselors—a tiny percentage of the time needed to navigate a process that is challenging for even the most highly educated families. Effective college guidance for low-income students involves a host of tasks, including helping students to identify college matches that offer robust support structures and adequate funding; working with students as they draft and revise personal essays; arranging campus visits; and providing individualized guidance to students and families through the financial aid process.