Even the testing companies ACT and the College Board, which have sometimes been taken to task for creating tests whose results reflect nothing better than wealth, have, in the past few years, assumed greater responsibility for getting more low-income and first-generation students into the applicant pool. The CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, acknowledged the SAT had not delivered on its “great promise,” which was that it “would find diamonds in the rough.” One explanation is counseling: Too many students who do well on the test are not provided the guidance they need to capitalize on their performance. The College Board is hoping to fix that by sending informational packets, modeled after work done by the economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, which contain personalized advice for students, including what Coleman described as a starter list of reach, fit, and safety schools to apply to. ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning is partnering with the American Council on Education on the American College Application Campaign, which encourages first-generation students to apply to college.
The idea behind all this is to ensure that students are getting what they deserve. Nicole Hurd of the College Advising Corps compares the situation of the thousands of talented, low-income students who apply to one or fewer colleges to someone holding a winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in. Only the plight of these students is actually much worse, she said, since the lottery is merely a game of chance. These students have earned their places in college.
To get there, however, they will likely need more support than nonprofit organizations can provide. Altogether, College Possible, the College Advising Corps, and Strive for College served about 187,000 students last year (with CAC serving much more than half of that total), which leaves a substantial number of students unserved or underserved. Even though the advising gap tends to be most acute in hot spots of inequity rather than across the board in all schools, providing enough resources to cover the advising gap will almost certainly require significant public investments, which is one reason many of these access organizations have joined together in a coalition to advocate for policy changes. Schools counselors, after all, provide much more than application support. They often double as social workers, personal mentors, and advocates for students lacking the support that wealthy people take for granted.
Colorado is leading the way among the states with its School Counselor Corps Grant Program, which provided $16 million to 59 schools between 2010 and 2015 to add 220 school counselors, cutting the student-to-counselor ratio down from 363:1 to 216 :1. In three years, dropout rates declined from 5.5 percent to 3.5 percent, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars, according to its 2016 report. Tennessee launched a program to train new school counselors for 30 schools. Some school districts are also placing a new emphasis on counseling. New York City has recently initiated the Single Shepherd program, which will pair 16,000 students in Brooklyn and the South Bronx with individual counselors from sixth through 12th grade.