As a counselor helping students find the right college, first in Clayton and then at Metro High School in St. Louis, Chat Leonard has an unusual perspective on the bumps that can litter the road to higher education.
Both schools, she said, have bright, energetic, motivated students who have been preparing to go to college “since they were in utero.” But at Metro, a magnet school where almost 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, aiming to get into the best school possible may have a fuzzier focus than at a place like Clayton, where many more of the families are affluent.
Helping to expand the horizons and the aspirations of students like those at Metro is the main goal expressed by a new coalition of more than 80 public and private colleges and universities, including Washington University and the University of Missouri at Columbia.
The group – known as the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success — wants to broaden the reach of member schools to find students who can make the grade on their campuses but may not even consider applying. With a new common application, plus tools to help simplify the process, the universities hope to help the students and themselves.
“I hope that more students will consider that college is possible,” said Julie Shimabukuro, director of admissions at Washington U., “There are resources out there. There are people that want to help them reach their goals, not only to make it possible to think about going to school but financially possible as well. And there are supports there as well. We hope to see that shift.”
Added Chuck May, her counterpart at Mizzou:
“The research is clear that for low-income and underrepresented students, earlier engagement and being part of that college-going culture is critical to their success. We're hoping that in addition to the application it's going to provide, it's going to create concrete tools that they can use for planning and applying to schools.”
But the new initiative is raising concerns in some quarters. Some high school counselors worry that the coalition will add even more pressure to a college-search process that already starts too soon and becomes too intense.
Among the tools is an online “locker,” like a dropbox, where, as early as freshman year, students can start to set aside materials that can help them get ready for college as well as help them narrow their search.
A top enrollment official at DePaul University publicly criticized the move, saying it appears to concentrate less on disadvantaged students and more on the desire of high-profile schools to improve their standing in “colleges’ continuing, almost rabid, quest for prestige via impressive statistical profiles.”
Leonard said at a recent conference of high school counselors, the coalition drew such interest that a session about it had to be moved to a larger room. Counselors had many questions about what its effect will be – so many questions that the coalition has postponed introduction of some of its tools from January to April.
“Are they going to attract more of the elite applicants as they have been in the past?" Leonard asked. "Or is their intention to attract some of these underrepresented populations? There needs to be communication and training for those counselors who don't have the resources to perhaps attend that national conference.”
Accessibility and affordability
On its website, the coalition spells out its mission this way:
“Our nation has been in the midst of an important public policy dialogue about whether college is affordable and whether it has value—can students, especially low- and moderate-income students, be successful and graduate without going deeply into debt? This Coalition helps to answer that question with a resounding YES.”
By getting students to start thinking about college as early as possible during their high school years, the coalition hopes to encourage them to look as broadly as possible at their options. And the online tools it will be introducing will be designed to help them with that goal.
And, it added, coalition schools are not trying to block out others who may be trying to attract talented students from underrepresented groups.
“We don’t believe we have a corner on access,” its website says. “Many institutions do great work to provide access. Our work is grounded in research about the outcomes for students who can be financially supported throughout their college careers.”
Members of the coalition range from Ivy League schools to those with lower profiles, such as the Illinois State University in Normal. To quality for membership, colleges and universities have to graduate at least 70 percent of their students within six years; many have a higher rate than that.
The coalition cites research that shows students from disadvantaged backgrounds often don’t apply to schools they qualify for, or don’t get all of the financial aid available because of complex procedures for applying. In some cases, students are even discouraged from being too ambitious in their college choices.
The coalition hopes to change that situation and ease the process with its new planning and application tools. Its goal:
“Get low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students thinking about college earlier and create the expectation that college is FOR THEM. We want to send a strong message that college is affordable, that they can be successful, and that the top schools in the country want students like them.”
New students, new markets
For Mizzou and Washington University, membership in the coalition is designed to help broaden their recruitment reach in a variety of ways.
Shimabukuro, at Washington U., noted that the Common App – an application used by a number of schools across the country – had technical problems a few years ago that caused a lot of turmoil around application time. That glitch was one reason Washington U. was interested in the coalition, to give prospective students another alternative.
“When the coalition began developing its application,” she said, “they saw an opportunity to create a platform that could potentially help underserved students, which is what all schools want to support – helping underserved students know that college is possible.”
Washington U. has been criticized for having a low percentage of its students receiving Pell grants, a federal program for students from low-income families. The university has pledged to steadily increase that number over several years, but Shimabukuro said that initiative was not a key factor in joining the coalition.
She said the major thrust in raising the Pell grant percentage will be more funding, not finding more students who are eligible.
“Our focus is really to raise more money for scholarship funds and to help students from challenging financial backgrounds, rather than just through an application process,” Shimabukuro said.
“We’ve got a lot of students who are applying to the university that we just haven’t had the resources to fund. We’re shifting funding and raising more money in that effort. We’re always reaching out to students across the country. We’re not just going to rely on an application itself, but should the coalition application help students find their way or think about colleges who haven’t thought about college before, we think that’s great, too.”
May, at Mizzou, noted that the number of high school graduates in Missouri and the Midwest as a whole is declining, so schools have to become more active in finding students who want to enroll. The coalition will help Mizzou “pop up on the radar” of students who may never have thought about it before, he said.
“As the pool shrinks, we constantly need to be looking to new markets,” he said.
And new competition makes that drive even more urgent, May said. But the key remains making sure the student and the school make a solid connection.
“We’re starting to see regional reps from the SEC schools moving to St. Louis now,” he said. “So we are competitive. But in the end, the most important thing is retention rate and graduation rate. Retention is those students who start at your institution after the first year, come back for their second year. And then, of course, graduate.
“If we’re a good fit for someone, wonderful. But if the University of Virginia is a better fit for a student, I would rather they go to Virginia and be happy and have that be a fit for them than come here and transfer out,” May said.
Concern and anxiety
For high school counselors, concerns aren’t just about the right fit between students and campus. It’s about the whole process of applying for college in the first place.
One part of the coalition’s approach that has raised concerns is the online “locker” where students can start as freshmen to set aside materials that can help them get ready for college as well as help them narrow their search. The coalition explains it like this:
“Whether collecting thoughts on college options or storing classwork or reflections, students can confidentially save documents that may be useful later in their college search or application.
“While only the student will have access to the locker, they will be able to share documents with their counselors, teachers, and mentors who can provide guidance along the way.”
Letters from groups representing counselors at Jesuit high schools, including DeSmet and Saint Louis U. High, and private schools, including Mary Institute and Country Day School, have questioned the coalition’s approach.
“Based on all adolescent development models,” said the letter from the Jesuit High School College Counselors Association, “starting to ‘collect items’ and for parents to ‘obsess’ in the 9th grade will most likely produce significant concern/anxiety over the college process at a time when all of our students’ focus should be on the growth of their personal and academic selves.”
The Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools expressed a similar worry.
“Students in the class of 2017 – and the adults who offer them support in the college process – are already juggling a number of significant changes. The new SAT and the implementation of price-prior year FAFSA submissions are already causing confusion and consternation, and we are concerned that the Coalition platform will increase both.”
Leonard, the counselor at Metro, said that at the recent national meeting of her colleagues, one counselor from the Northeast said he had already been contacted by the parent of a ninth grader, asking how soon the student could begin compiling an online portfolio of writing, recommendations and more.
She said questions for the coalition range from process to philosophy.
“Philosophically, is the intention to throw a broader net and to communicate to students they perhaps had not been reaching for that college that is accessible and affordable – and not just community college or maybe a state regional college but some of the colleges on this elite list?" Leonard said. “Or is it to put up some competition with the Common App? We were kind of hearing a mixed message.
“I think for small liberal arts colleges, if they’re on a list with Harvard and Princeton and Yale and other schools, it’s going to be like, 'Gee, I’m invited to the party with the popular kids. How can I say no?'”