BALTIMORE, Md.—Rhonda Waller knew that one hour spent filling out a basic financial-aid application could change everything for students who have been told they'll never succeed—so she had resolved to do something about it. She is the only counselor at Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove, the girl's basketball coach, and a single mother of two. There are 64 seniors this year at the Baltimore school. Nearly all of them could attend college for free, if they gave her that one hour and followed her directions. She strode down hallways lined with red lockers and into third-period English, where seven young men and women waited in limp-noodle posture, skateboards and backpacks at their feet.
Set up your usernames and passwords, Waller, 44, told the students. She paced the room, leaning over students' shoulders and repeating, "You're in, you're in," as each signed on.
"All right," Waller said and clapped her hands once. "Everybody's in."
Here in Baltimore, and throughout the country, poor kids graduate from high school at below-average rates, and they apply to college in far lower numbers than their wealthier peers. In 2012, 82 percent of children from families in the top fifth of the national income distribution enrolled in postsecondary education after graduating from high school, compared with just 52 percent of those in the bottom fifth. Academics and politicians endlessly debate the root causes of this: early-childhood reading habits, bad teachers, poor funding, higher prevalence of asthma, crime, stress, a dearth of family support. Waller had heard all of these theories and more. By her own estimates, and according to past numbers, just six or seven seniors at Benjamin Franklin would enroll in college next year.