How Not to Get Into College

An information gap between rich and poor kids eligible for admission to the country’s biggest higher-education system is wasting the talents of many of our best and brightest.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Emily Wexler is the Executive Director at Learning Bridge of the Sierra and a California certified College Admissions Counselor. She lives in the Lake Tahoe area.

A few years ago, I was working part-time at a high school as a career technician, advising students on postsecondary education and career options. Early in the school year I ran into José, a senior whom I had tutored in chemistry the year before. He was a very bright student, so I asked him what colleges he was planning to apply to.

“College? You’re kidding, right?”

No, I wasn’t kidding. I asked what his SAT scores were, hoping I could show him he could get in. He didn’t know what the SAT was. He didn’t know you had to take an entrance exam to go to college. He didn’t know the SAT would be free for him because his family is low-income and that applying to college would also be free. He figured no one told him about college because he wasn’t eligible academically or financially.

In 1983, California added to the education code the Tenth Grade Pupil Progress Review and Counseling program as a requirement for school districts to receive certain funds. The idea was that by age 16 or the end of 10th grade, each student should receive information about where she stood with respect to future educational options. To receive state funds, each public school would have to ensure that each of its students met with a counselor whose job was to explain the options for work and educational programs. Their requirements for admission would be reviewed alongside the student’s academic reports. Families could count on the public school system to provide information about college, and everyone got the same information, albeit tailored to individual circumstances.

Today in California, the ratio of students to counselors averages 945 to 1. Improbable as it would be that counselors could have time to conduct meaningful conversations, during the roughly 180 days of the school year, with each of the 945 students they’re responsible for, now they no longer even need to try: The requirement quietly slipped out of the education code in 2005. School districts are no longer required to fulfill the Tenth Grade Pupil Progress Review and Counseling program to get funding. No one is required to inform individual students in the most populous state about higher education. There is not a single point in a child’s education when the requirements for attending college are discussed one-on-one.

For a kid like José, this lack of information is damning.

José’s parents did not attend college. So he assumed that college was for someone else, not a kid like him. His parents, even if they had realized that he had the intelligence to make it into college, might not have encouraged looking into it; media reports of the high cost of college would be discouraging to a low-income family with no direct experience of higher education. They would not want to disappoint him if he got in by not being able to come up with the money to send him.

Both assumptions would be incorrect.

A student like José is likely to have heard that attending community college is cheaper. Many low-income students would likely pay nothing to attend a California community college or one of the bachelor’s degree–granting institutions, such as the University of California (still home to two of the top public universities in the world, Berkeley and UCLA), or one of the campuses of California State University. Friends, family, teachers, and coaches therefore often suggest to low-income students that starting there and transferring will provide an affordable path to a bachelor’s degree.

But for these kids, the likelihood of transferring from a California community college to UC, CSU, or another four-year college or university is low: just 14 percent, according to the California Community College Chancellors’ Office. That’s not including students pursuing an associate’s degree, senior citizens taking figure drawing, or informational classes like computer literacy—it’s just students who check the box on the community college application indicating their goal is to transfer to a bachelor’s degree granting institution.

One reason for this low figure is that today, once a student graduates from high school, he is eligible to apply to college as a freshman, and attend college as a freshman, just once. In other words, if you graduate from high school and then take that exploratory class in video game arts, even over the summer, you may no longer apply to most Cal State or UC campuses until you’re eligible to transfer as a junior. Once you’ve taken a single community college class, most campuses require that you complete two years’ worth of classes there before you can get into CSU or UC.

So if a kid like José follows the advice given to him by well-intentioned community members, the chance that he is likely to fail to obtain a bachelor’s degree is 86 percent. Graduation rates for the schools a student applies to are provided as part of the financial aid application process; why not the transfer rates?

My experience with José inspired me to start a nonprofit that helps all students, regardless of income, with the college application process. I have encountered many parents and community members who get angry when I show them how to look up the transfer rate in the Student Right to Know Report published by the CCCO. Parents who transferred to UC from community college before transfer rates dropped (a group that includes the editor of this article) are often upset to discover that their plan to save money by starting their child at a community college might not make sense anymore. They feel trapped between what they have heard about escalating tuition and heavy loan burdens on graduates and the harsh reality of a 14 percent transfer rate.

The only way to soothe their angst is to give parents and students information—just as the only way to turn bright kids like José into the leaders and job creators of tomorrow is to give them and their parents information. Without it, the application and financial aid process is a mystery. Without it, students and their families choose where to go to college based on rumor and hearsay. We have to educate students about how to approach education if they are to succeed at it. If everyone isn’t getting the same information, the opportunity to learn is limited to those who know they have to ask.

President Obama has begun to address a number of issues in the higher education game, mostly dealing with financial aid. In all its complexity, financial aid was a worthy issue to take on. Still, if we are to meet the nation’s goal of having the highest number of college graduates in the world by 2020, a good place to start would be to tell students how to go to college. Public schools ought to be required to sit down all kids to tell them their options, their likelihood of completing the requirements, and their estimated financial cost. At multiple points during a student’s academic career, beginning in elementary school, students, staff, and teachers should be told the requirements for admission to California institutions of higher education, including information on how financial aid is calculated, rates of financial need that are met, and institutional transfer and graduation rates. Not getting this information to every student has a far greater cost for the future of California.   

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is collaborating with Samuel Goldwyn Films on the distribution of the documentary Ivory Tower.

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