Congress Needs to Put College Counseling First

As a high school college counselor, I should be enjoying a relaxing summer, but my work is far from over. My summer days are dedicated to making calls to every graduating senior to ensure deadlines are being met, deposits are being paid, and orientations are being attended. And that doesn’t end after the student starts college.

Today, graduates of KIPP high schools complete college at a rate of 45 percent, that is four times the national average of 11 percent for students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. We accomplish this through detailed check-ins with our college students and maintaining a lower student-to-counselor ratio (roughly 100-to-1 versus 482-to-1 nationwide).

Imagine if every student had access to this level of intensive college counseling, then our college completion rates would improve. Today only one out of 10 students from low-income families earn a bachelor’s degree. The KIPP Foundation is urging Congress to prioritize college counseling nationwide and make it a priority in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. We recommend creating a federal grant program intended to increase the number of college counselors in public schools, adopt proven evidence-based counseling practices, and track results.

At KIPP, we have made college counseling a focus in our work with students and it is working. My KIPP Through College (KTC) department employs a College Match Program, in which counselors help students identify colleges that are the strongest matches based on their academic profiles. We make sure students identify and apply to a strong mix of 9+ colleges, starting their junior year.

Take Crystal Martinez, an alumna from KIPP University Prep High School. Like most of our seniors, she applied to quality schools, ultimately submitting 18 applications and receiving nine acceptance letters. And, like most of our seniors, she waited for financial aid award letters from these institutions before making a final decision. Crystal fretted about her choice and finally decided on Lycoming College, an institution in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that is one of KIPP’s 97 college partners.

With each partnership, the school assigns a liaison and we develop mutual goals (e.g., target enrollment numbers, summer programming, student support programs on campus, etc.). Lycoming is a perfect fit for our students seeking a liberal arts education at a small school working diligently toward the goal of meeting each student’s financial aid needs. And because graduation is the ultimate goal, for each partner school we review the college’s six-year graduation rate among minority students. For Lycoming, that number averages at 69 percent. Apart from the financial commitment, Lycoming commits to providing faculty mentors for our students. So we advised Crystal to go for it: “Small college, they have your major, you’ll only need one loan to close the gap, and they provide strong support for their students.”

During her sophomore year at Lycoming, Crystal realized that if she wanted to come back to Texas after graduation to teach she needed to learn more about teacher certification reciprocity between Pennsylvania and Texas. During her check-in with her KTC counselor, she was able to learn more about teacher certification in Texas and decided to transfer to a college in Texas to finish her degree and do her student teaching locally, relying on guidance from her KTC counselor to complete the transfer process.

Every counselor feels an enormous responsibility to show our students the right path after college, but we also know that our work is not always prioritized. At KIPP, we’ve seen that students benefit from targeted assistance at the time of application, matriculation, and while they persist — supports that all students deserve. It’s time that we put college counseling at the top of the federal funding list so our students can succeed in college, career, and life.

Ruben Rodriguez is in his sixth year as the director of KIPP Through College for KIPP Texas San Antonio, one of 224 schools supported by the KIPP Foundation, a NACAC member. Rodriguez previously worked with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and taught social work at Stephen F. Austin State University (TX).

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