Making Invisible Students Visible

Last night, I spoke at a reception for an innovative group called CollegeTracks, a Montgomery County, Maryland organization that seeks to help low-income, first generation and minority students navigate the complex college financial aid and admissions processes. Several extraordinary students spoke—the type of talented “strivers” on whom the Century Foundation has focused research, those who’ve done fairly well despite serious obstacles. A video was presented about one remarkable pupil, Oscar Portillo, the son of parents from El Salvador with grade-school educations. Oscar, with the help of CollegeTracks, is now attending Middlebury College in Vermont.

CollegeTracks began in 2002 when three middle-class parents at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School realized that as they advised their own children on how to apply for college, many of the low-income and minority students in the same high school were not getting sufficient support.

The mission of the organization, says executive director Nancy Leopold, is to help make kids who are invisible to college admissions officers visible. Students need advice (and nagging) to make sure they hit the deadlines for taking the SAT’s, for getting applications in, and for applying for financial aid. Many low-income students, whose parents did not themselves attend college, can benefit from extra support. The program now serves not only Bethesda-Chevy Chase students but those at a second school, Wheaton High School, which has much higher levels of poverty. The program aids 550 students each year, with plans to expand in the future.

There are a lot of great organizations across the country that help low-income students apply to college and seek out financial aid, but a couple of features struck me about the CollegeTracks approach that seem worth emulating.

  • The organization moved from a system of volunteers to one with full-time paid staff (supplemented by volunteers) after recognizing that having an all-volunteer corps come into school periodically still left some students falling through the cracks. Having full-time staff on campus means that CollegeTracks officials are a constant presence in school who can carefully track data about who has taken the SAT, filled out the FAFSA, and finished their applications. At first, the presence of paid staff concerned the existing high school counselors, but Leopold says those difficulties were smoothed over when counselors realized that CollegeTracks staff were there to augment what counselors are doing, not replace them. The cost of the program is about $1,000 per student served, she says.
  • The organization has a strong bias toward helping students get into four-year colleges rather than community college programs. While some students will do better at a two-year institution, Leopold says the research on “under-matching” makes clear that all things being equal, students are more likely to graduate from four-year institutions, the more selective the better.  Studies find that only 10 percent of students who begin a community college ultimately receive a bachelor’s degree; and that students within a given SAT range are more likely to graduate if they attend a more selective institution. Over 50% of CollegeTracks students are admitted to a four-year college. If students do choose to attend a community college, College Track counselors try to encourage them to apply for honors programs where they are more likely to have success.
  • CollegeTracks now follows students and continues to support them once they’re in college. This approach is consistent with a large body of research on the importance of addressing college persistence as well as access, and groups like CollegeTracks try to help in ways large and small. For example, Oscar Portillo, the Middlebury student, received a Gates Millennium Scholarship, but there are still missing pieces in his package, including transportation costs to visit his family in Maryland, which CollegeTracks tries to address.

The program is making an enormous difference in the lives of the students who benefit; Portillo credited the “angels” who were watching over him for breaking what had been generations of poverty in his family. But the beneficiaries are broader. As it happens, I have a daughter at Middlebury, and she and her classmates will benefit a great deal from being in a college with someone with the life experiences that Portillo brings. Most of all, our society will be immeasurably enriched by tapping into the talents of a group of students who could easily remain invisible.

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