A more equitable path to higher education requires structures that provide students with this kind of support. High schools need to have a college counselor who can offer individualized guidance for students and families. Without a counselor, Mike would have had a slim chance of being recognized as a student with potential for admission and success at a selective liberal arts college. Even if he had known enough to apply, his application would have been ignored: Though he was a strong student with a B average, his high school had a reputation that was still unknown, and his SAT scores fell well below those of most admitted students at highly selective colleges.
In spending time with Mike, Josh saw the intelligence, resilience, and maturity that had kept Mike afloat, and in school, through his family’s struggles. Though Mike at first doubted that college was possible, Josh helped him to envision it as part of his future. He advocated for Mike with admissions counselors, conveying Mike’s potential and explaining that the drop in Mike’s grades in his junior and senior years did not reflect ability or work ethic, but a catastrophic change in life circumstances.
Josh struggled with Mike’s decision to stay at home. He urged Mike to at least attend the weekends for accepted students at the colleges in New York state, and Mike, seeking to understand his choices more fully, agreed. After a series of visits, when, as Mike later recalled, the stress and anxiety he had felt for months seemed to evaporate, Mike decided to attend Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York.
When Josh spoke with Mike at the end of his sophomore year at Skidmore, Mike reported that he had earned at 3.5 in his first semester and a 4.0 in his second. He was president of the Skidmore TV station and known as the campus audiovisual expert, sought after for help by students and faculty in his work-study job in media services. But Mike still felt guilty for leaving his brothers and fearful for his mother’s health. Though he had begun to see all he could gain at Skidmore, he also saw the effect of his absence on his family. He worried his brothers were not moving down the right path. “I want to be successful in my life, but I hope it’s not too late for them to have a good childhood,” he told Josh.
For students who navigate life in poverty, many obstacles can come between a coveted acceptance letter and a student’s enrollment. The vast majority of public school students do not have the support they need to make decisions that pit their current responsibilities against their dreams for the future: The students who are most in need of guidance and advocacy are those who receive the least. If higher education is to function an engine of democracy and mobility in this country, every student should have a college counselor whose caseload is small enough to make real support possible, and who possesses both the knowledge and the counseling skills to see students through this crucial transition.