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Rebecca Joseph Headshot

A Broken College Pipeline in Dire Need of Repairs

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"My mother works at McDonald's, and so do I," said Elsie. "My mother knows I won't be there for much longer. She says, 'I know college will make your life better.'"

I am more tired than I have been in months. Joined by Elsie and two other first-generation college students, I recently spoke to 140 urban high school students about how they can create amazing lives for themselves by attending four-year colleges. My students shared how they are going to college free and discussed their plans for careers, not just hourly service jobs. Elsie, for example, described her path toward becoming a doctor. We spoke to students with academic talents and great life experiences.

And we were shocked by all the blank faces that starred silently back at us.

The public school we visited is brand new and has not yet budgeted for a college counselor. It has no direct college readiness services. This school is not alone. At least seventeen new schools opened around Los Angeles this year, and most have limited or no college counseling. A similar number have opened the past several years. In addition, bigger high schools have broken down into smaller schools and creating entirely new school infrastructures. Few have the financial resources for stand-alone college counseling. None are sharing resources or collaborating on college access. Moreover, existing schools across Los Angeles, the state, and country are laying off counselors in record numbers.

That leaves local universities in the lurch. They have far more secondary schools to visit than they did just three years years ago. Also bound by financial restrictions, these universities cannot convince smaller schools that share campuses to allow them to present to several sites at once. In addition, reps for the universities say, these smaller schools often fail to submit critical information -- including lists of the top 9 percent of students who qualify for consideration to a UC.

This situation is tragic. Getting urban kids to complete college benefits our entire society and economy.

Persuading students to consider going to college takes a village. Teachers, counselors, administrators, community members, non-profits, and colleges must participate and collaborate. Our visit was part of an amazing pilot program supported by Latinos in College in which teachers across the city donated their classrooms and students for our presentations. Yet nothing sustainable can happen without the direction of a full-time school counselor and staff, who are devoted to offering a full-scale college readiness program. For one counselor, that is a massive task. For a school without a counselor, it is unrealistic. And students who go to work right after high school have few economic options. They are doomed, like Elsie's mom, to low-wage jobs.

I have spent the past few years looking for urban high schools and other programs that promote college attendance for all students. I have seen some schools work magic; their students receive a myriad of services to help them make it to college. They have amazing counselors who help students remediate poor academic records, pursue enrichment summer programs, and take advanced classes. These schools and programs take students and families on college visits, help them connect with non-profits committed to college access, and prepare for standardized tests.

They help with college applications and connect students with amazing financial aid and scholarship programs. I have seen federally funded programs work with students and help them get ready for college with mentoring, college visits, summer programs, and more. They offer programs for parents, many of whom are reluctant to let their children go away to college.

These programs work. The students who take advantage of them qualify for competitive colleges and receive tremendous scholarships.

Yet I visit school after school where students receive inadequate college counseling. The kids are no different from the kids attending the schools or programs that promote access. Sadly, they attend schools with woefully overburdened teachers and staffs.

Colleges around the country are desperately seeking students from urban high schools. There are students attending these schools who are amazingly talented but under-prepared for college. Yes, several of them will make it to college. They are the resilient ones. They are the outliers. Moreover, they thrive on college campuses, from Harvard to Pomona to Brown to Kenyon to UCLA to Cal State Los Angeles.

But there are so many more of these students.

California needs 100,000 more students to graduate from college each year to help sustain and expand the state's economy. Unfortunately, thousands of students miss out because of our shortsighted decision to eliminate or not provide college counselors and other college readiness programs. Volunteers can help, but they cannot make the systemic changes a fully implemented college-going culture can.

Every part of the horrific budget cuts to public education in California and around the country is hurting college access and overtaxing the already-strained college pipeline. Cutting adult education, summer school, and other programs devastates our students. Cutting back on outreach programs at public universities around the country is equally damaging. The creation of new, smaller schools on existing or new campuses is laudable but shortsighted if college access is not embedded in the school's goals and resources and campuses do not find a way to collaborate. The elimination or absence of full-time college counselors with reasonable caseloads is a tragedy.

There is room for these students at colleges across the country. They can and do thrive in college. They just don't have the tools to get there, because they come from communities that don't actively promote a systemic college readiness process.

Jessica, another one of our guest speakers and a first-generation college student at my campus, described her mother, who works six days a week in a garment factory with no benefits and no job security. "She wants me to go to college. She wants me to have a better life. That is why she works so hard."

Yet the high school students we visited were silent when I asked about what they needed to do to go to college. Without college counselors, they are not remediating classes, getting information about the SAT or ACT, or finding free summer programs. They are not visiting colleges, applying for scholarships, or learning about how to pay for college. That is just the tip of the college readiness iceberg. Our visit was just a tiny bit of triage.

We must work on system-wide efforts. There are many outstanding efforts at the local, state, and federal levels. But it is unfair to grant access only to some kids, while their less fortunate peers receive limited, if any, college access.

I am tired, but I am going back out this week. I cannot stop. We cannot stop.