Individual coaching demystifies college for first-generation applicants

Final deadlines for college applications are looming this week, and students who are first in their families to attend college are far less likely to have help navigating the application system. The College Advising Corps aims to change that by recruiting college graduates to advise first-generation applicants. Hari Sreenivasan visits two New York City high schools to see the Corps in action.

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    Final deadlines for college applications are looming this week, and students who are the first in their family to apply to college are the least likely to have had help navigating the complex process.

    A group called the College Advising Corps is trying to turn that disparity around. It partners with high schools and universities to recruit and pay recent college grads to advise lower-income, first-generation students on getting into college.

    Hari Sreenivasan visited two New York City high schools working with the corps.

  • VICTORIA DEL TORO, College Advising Corps:

    You bought two movie tickets. Your friend cancels.

    What would you do?


    I would call my other friend.


    You would call somebody else. What happens if that person doesn't respond?


    Many students at Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language all still learning English. Most of them are recent immigrants. The idea of applying and going to college can feel totally foreign. That's where Victoria Del Toro comes in.


    Are you going to lose out on that money?




    You call somebody else. So, colleges work the same way. So, when they e-mail you, they track who responds to what. And they want to know that you're responsible, right?


    This is her second full year at the school, as part of a program called College Advising Corps.

    As the school's only dedicated college counselor, her mission is to have all of the school's nearly 400 students believe college is an option. It's a mission that could be challenging in most American high schools.

    But, at Manhattan Academy, few have any friends or relatives who have experience with American higher education.


    They still don't think they're performing at the level that they should be performing at. So, they're very aware that they are being compared to other students, and so they know that the language is a barrier.


    Andrea Ruiz Diaz came to the U.S. from Paraguay four years ago. She was already convinced college was in her future, but the details of how to get there were a mystery.

    ANDREA RUIZ DIAZ, Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language: I wouldn't know about the SATs, because, when you're an immigrant and you're in America, you're just focusing on learning the language, graduating from high school. You're not really focusing on college yet.


    The type of help Del Toro provides, one-on-one help with choosing schools, help with writing essays, and guiding students through completing paperwork, is what affluent families pay hundreds of dollars for.

    Across the country, the average college counselor works with more than 450 students a year. That means the average student has less than 40 minutes of individual coaching on college applications. Without partnering with College Advising Corps, principal Siv Boletsis says her students would be in the same boat. Instead, Del Toro tries to spend 20 to 30 minutes a week with each student.

    How important has that role been on campus here?

    SIV BOLETSIS, Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language: The two guidance counselors who are here provide the socio-emotional support and programming for the students. There was a need for someone like Victoria to be here to explain certain things. These are families who don't know about the college application process at all.


    Del Toro says her hours with students and parents are chipping away at skepticism about the stressful college application process being worth it.


    My first year here at Manhattan Academy, it was definitely not, like, a goal for a student or even a conversation for a student to say, hey, I signed up for the SAT, I'm going to take it.

    And now, I must say, like, when I saw my data and I saw that 94 percent of my senior class registered for the SAT, I said, things are changing in here.


    But the goal is not just to get students to apply to any college. Aiming high can make a difference. A growing body of research suggests low-income, first-generation students who have the grades to get into selective schools are more likely to graduate from those colleges than from the local, open-enrollment campuses where they're still more likely register.


    I have more students applying to private institutions out of the state than ever before.


    In the spring, Del Toro posts where students have been accepted and the scholarships they have won on bulletin boards, spurring competition.

    Andrea Ruiz Diaz says her ideas about what's possible have expanded.


    I definitely wouldn't have considered applying to schools out of state. Like, I have always had the fear of going out of my house, especially because I'm an immigrant. It feels weird and scary, but she I'm open to it now.

  • AILEEN MONER, College Advising Corps:

    There are so many talented students that don't see themselves competitive enough.


    Aileen Moner is director of College Advising Corps' New York office and oversees two-dozen counselors working in more than 20 high schools across the city.


    I think we're definitely working with those students that maybe don't have the social capital to be able to see themselves on campuses that — that they can really succeed in.


    College Advising Corps started at the University of Virginia in 2005. Today, it has more than 500 advisers working in 14 states. The students they work with are 30 percent more likely to apply to college and more than 25 percent more likely to apply for financial aid.

    New York high schools the corps has worked with over time, like Eximius College Prep in the Bronx, are seeing more students enroll at more selective four-year colleges.

    Jon Daly partnered with the Advising Corps when he became principal of Eximius five years ago.

  • JON DALY, Eximius College Preparatory Academy:

    When I first got here, I couldn't understand the fact that most of the students from the South Bronx here, they were attending Staten Island College. That's where they were going.

    And I was really wondering, why is that happening? Because it's like a two-hour train ride. and it was because a brother or sister of some of the students here went there, and then it just seemed like that's where most of the students were going.


    Daly says his goal for every student is the best college at the best price.


    Being an immigrant myself, and being the first person in my family to go to college, I know firsthand how scary that process is, and how hard it is to navigate that. And that's why I was like, we need somebody here that can demystify this for the parents.


    That focus has given the school a reputation as a promising avenue from the largely low-income South Bronx to high-quality colleges.


    We have four years to get you into the best college. That's what we will do. All right?


    And the school is making good on that promise. Last year, every graduate was admitted to college. Nine of those 110 grads are at New York University this year with full or substantial financial aid.

    Tiffany Marte is one of those nine. She says a private university seemed unrealistic before working with her adviser.

  • TIFFANY MARTE, Eximius Academy Graduate:

    It was more of a reach school for me, and by reach, I mean like impossible? Because it was like — it was my dream school. Like, it was in the city. It had all the class — all the courses that I wanted to take, but it wasn't something that I thought about.


    Her classmate Jeninne Ware was going to skip filing extra paperwork for private scholarships. But her adviser wouldn't let her off the hook.

  • JENINNE WARE, Eximius Academy Graduate:

    The weekend before it was due, I completed it, because he texted me, and he's like, are you — did you do it? And I'm like, no, I'm not going to a private school. So, he really encouraged me to complete it.


    Without that prodding, Ware says she wouldn't be where she is today.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Hari Sreenivasan in New York.

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