Late start, last-minute snags derail college admissions

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In May, Chicago Public Schools released a report that for the first time matched up data from its annual Senior Exit Survey with data on where those graduates actually enrolled in college, provided by the National Student Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse verifies enrollments and degree completions at most U.S. colleges and universities for student loan providers, and more recently, for K-12 school districts.

When the Class of 2004 was surveyed in May of their senior year, about 6 percent of respondents had applied to and been accepted by a 2-year college. By the fall, however, close to half of students who were in college had ended up in 2-year schools.

The mismatch between expectations and reality is due in part to a lack of college counseling in high schools. As a result, students delay the college application process until months after admission and financial aid applications should be submitted. With applications left until the last minute, students are forced to apply to community colleges, which have open admissions and late deadlines.

Students need extra push

Even students with good grades, who may well have been admitted to 4-year institutions, can fall through this crack. One such student is Gage Park High honors graduate Debbi Fernandez, who entered Daley College a year ago after getting a late start on applying to 4-year institutions.

Though Fernandez recalls the school giving general announcements about college applications starting in the fall of her senior year, she did not meet personally with a counselor until after Christmas, when applications should already be in. (See story on page 12.)

Sometimes an extra push from a counselor can keep a student on track.

“I remember trying to get [one student] just to fill out a City College application,” says Carmen Mahon, program development specialist for the Umoja Student Development Corporation, a nonprofit school-community partnership organization at Manley High on the West Side. The student told Mahon he planned to go to a trade school or find an apprenticeship, but she worked hard to persuade him college was possible. “He had been told he really couldn’t do anything,” she says.

Ultimately, thanks to her prodding, the young man applied to John A.Logan Community College outside Carbondale and was accepted. He went from a 1.8 GPA at Manley to a 3.8 at Logan and eventually transferred to Southern Illinois University.

Sometimes students apply on time and are accepted to 4-year schools, but hit snags that derail their plans—for instance, lost paperwork, or lack of money for a housing deposit. “Things happen over the summer, like they didn’t fill out some little form to actually enroll,” observes Gudelia Lopez, assistant director for research in the district’s office of postsecondary education.

First-generation college students have extra difficulty navigating the road from being accepted to actually starting classes, says Liz Monge, college counselor at the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School.

“The key is getting them physically there,” she says. “Some really become paralyzed by the fear of going away. Consequently, because of open admission, community college becomes the most viable option.”