Potholes swallow seniors

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At Kennedy High School, college and career counselor Javier Sanchez says he sometimes finds it difficult to get students to take even the basic steps to open the door to a university.

This year, he and the principal at the far southwest side school are trying a combination of incentives and a bit of public humiliation. Every senior’s name is listed on a poster in the hallway with details about where they’ve applied. They hope an empty line will embarrass that student into applying. Those who fill out financial aid forms are entered into a raffle to win free tickets to the prom and a limousine to drive them there.

Still, Sanchez is worried it won’t be enough. He says that in his mostly Latino school, he must constantly fight against misconceptions about going to college and a lackadaisical attitude from students who then show up in his office in May “terrified about what they are going to do next,” he says.

The difficulty of Sanchez’s job is underscored in a new report to be released this month by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. It follows a 2006 study that showed low grades and less-than-rigorous classes led to only 35 percent of CPS graduates getting a college degree within six years of leaving high school.

In this new report, researchers asked seniors in surveys and interviews about their college plans. In the spring, 90 percent said they wanted to go to college. By fall, only 61 percent had enrolled.

The report says there are many “potholes” that stymie students—from lack of family support to lack of follow-through.

The most fundamental problem is that 40 percent of seniors who say they want to complete a four-year college never apply to one. Also surprising to researchers: Students who said they completed a financial aid form were almost 50 percent more likely to enroll in a college than those who hadn’t filled out the form, says Melissa Roderick, the study’s author.

Counselors, however, say they have trouble convincing parents and students to fill out the forms, mostly because they are wary of giving their financial information or haven’t filled out tax returns.

“Step by step by step, we take them through it,” says Tosha Dowell, of the Paul Revere Alumni Association. The association works with students from 7th grade through high school.

According to this and other studies, Latino students struggle the most. Though close to 90 percent of them aspire to some form of higher education, just 37 percent enrolled in a four-year institution.

African-American students did only slightly better, with 94 percent aspiring to some form of higher education, but only 65 percent enrolling in any school and less than half in a four-year university.

Mismatches

Another key finding is that CPS is not doing a good job helping students get into the best college they can. Only 38 percent of highly qualified students enroll in schools that match their qualifications and 29 percent of those who could have gotten into a selective or very selective school enrolled in a two-year college, if any at all.

“So there is a myth that smart kids work hard and are recruited by everyone,” Roderick says. “There is a myth that they don’t need any help, that they will be fine. We did not find this to be true.”

Disconnect between student qualifications and college choice is the result of lack of knowledge, Dowell says. Guidance counselors and students often don’t know what opportunities exist, she says. For example, a student with decent grades and high test scores will boast about getting a full ride to Northern Illinois University or Illinois State University. Those same students, however, could qualify to get into Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania or Davidson University in North Carolina, both selective liberal arts institutions that provide full needs-based financial aid. The elite East Coast schools also offer more prestige and connections, notes Dowell.

“Students don’t know any of this and they don’t know anyone who has gone to these kinds of places,” she says. “They don’t even consider it.”

CPS officials know that students need to cast their nets wider and in 2003 it opened the Office of Postsecondary Education. Last year, Greg Darnieder, who oversees that department, issued a mandate that each senior fill out five college and scholarship applications.

Schools have long complained that counselors’ caseloads—about 350 to 1 in CPS—are too high to afford students the type of individual attention needed. Two years ago, Darneider hired coaches for 12 schools to see whether targeted help would improve college-going rates. Early indications are that schools with coaches improved their college-going rates slightly more than other CPS schools.

Overall, college-going rates throughout CPS have been inching up. According to district figures, about 48 percent of 2007 graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college.

Going it alone

But accomplishing all of this is a tall task, says Jaclyn Reeves, the post-secondary coach for Roosevelt High on the Northwest Side. Many of her school’s students are first-generation college-goers, so they can’t turn to parents to help them navigate the process. “Our students are really going at it alone,” she says.

The consortium’s pothole study emphasizes this point, noting that students need significant guidance from parents to help them manage the college search process. But many CPS students, whose parents are immigrants or have limited education, lack this support.

Some 80 percent of Latino students and more than 40 percent of white CPS students report that their mothers were born outside the United States. Furthermore, 60 percent of Latino students report that their mothers have no schooling beyond high school.

However, the study challenges the notion that being undocumented leads Latinos to forgo college because they can’t get financial aid. This was only the case for 6 percent of the students surveyed.

The bigger problem is a lack of understanding about the process for getting into colleges and students who think college is too expensive or is not for people like them, says Barbara Karpouzian, college counselor at the Chicago Academy High in Dunning.

Culture plays into it too. Karpouzian says some parents at the school, which is about half Latino, one-quarter white and 20 percent black, tell her that their daughters will just get married and have babies. Some of the boys are geared more toward vocational education.

Elizabeth Ortiz, president of the Illinois Latino Council on Higher Education, says it boils down to the way Latinos see themselves and others see them. Society, she says, has them pegged for manual labor jobs or work in the service sector. She says college counselors and university recruiters need to challenge those views.

“A lot of people subconsciously believe that Latinos should be in these jobs and so they don’t even ask, did you apply to college? What are your plans? What do you think about your future?” Ortiz says.

Roderick says she was surprised by the number of students who told her that no one, “not a teacher, not a counselor, not a janitor,” asked whether they had applied to a college. For the first time as a researcher, Roderick says, she interjected herself during some of the interviews to dispute students’ erroneous beliefs about financial aid.

For example, one told her he thought it would be cheaper to put off going to a two-year college until he could save enough to pay for it himself, than to use financial aid to go to a four-year college immediately after high school.

The study is just the latest proof that having a bookshelf of college directories available to students is not enough. Already schools have taken heed.

Noble Street Charter graduated 91 students in 2006; 71 percent of them went to college, 54 percent to a four-year program and 33 percent to one that is very selective. The school has invested heavily in counselors and has worked hard to create a college-going culture, including giving students time to fill out applications during the school day.

Chicago Academy High declared March “college month.” All month, banners from different colleges will be posted at the doors of the classrooms. Parents will be invited in to talk about financial aid. Most of these activities are geared toward freshmen, sophomores and juniors; seniors take a class in which part of the course work is to fill out college applications.

The Paul Revere Alumni Association begins taking students on college tours in 8th grade. Over the next three years, they talk about college, but during senior year, monthly seminars ramp up the effort.

Dowell agrees that filling out financial aid forms is key. “It is more important to me that they fill out financial aid forms than that they apply to college. We can get them into a university in August, but we won’t be able to find them money then.”

In February, the group offers students’ families free tax preparation services at the Gary Comer Youth Center, a local community center.

At Dyett High, senior counselor Vanelle Thomas says the school devoted an entire day for seniors to fill out applications with the goal that each student complete five.

In late February, the school is hosting a financial aid night. Thomas says in the past, the school hosted financial aid workshops during the day, but this time they decided to do it at night to get more parents involved. She says parents often are hesitant to fill out the complicated form. “There’s just a lot of fear of the unknown,” Thomas says.

Sanchez is trying many of the same things as the counselors at Dyett, as well as other creative methods. But he says the response has been underwhelming. He describes a recent workshop he conducted for parents and students who wanted help filling out financial aid forms. The school sent a mailer to every senior’s house and sent notes home with the students. “But close to no one showed up,” he says.

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to karp@catalyst-chicago.org.