06/20/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

How to Combat the Dwindling College Resources for Underserved Students

Definition of Underserved Students
Low income, first generation, foster youth, and underrepresented students of color

The Problem

At the last National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) national conference, Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, presented very disturbing information about the availability of college admissions counseling to public high school students. Then, I did my own research, some of which follows:

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) says "an optimal student-counselor ratio is 250 to 1"; however, actual student to counselor ratios in the U. S. are much higher.

  • According to ASCA, the national student to counselor ratio to be 459 to 1.
  • In California, the ratio of students to counselor is nearly 1,000 to 1, ranking California last in the nation. Twenty-nine percent of California schools, usually low income schools in urban and rural areas, have no counseling programs at all.

The Implication

The lack of college admissions counseling for underserved students is nothing short of appalling. At a time when critical information, resources and support are needed for a successful transition from high school to college, there is little or none available. Students who receive no or perfunctory admissions counseling are less likely to:

  1. Go directly to college after high school
  2. Make good choices about the college they attend
  3. Have critical information about financial aid. The lack of financial aid is the #1 reason for underserved students dropping out of college.

Seventy percent of students who fail to go on to college come from households where parents have not gone to college themselves. Young adults who fail to complete college are much more likely to come from families from poorer income groups and lower levels of education.

The California Department of Education says inadequate or nonexistent school counseling programs lead to the unanticipated stratification of low income and students of color. Students who need college admissions information and counseling the most are the ones who get the least.

With every year of education and/or training beyond high school, a student increases his/her overall income level throughout life, decreases the chances for being unemployed, has greater access to health insurance and even extends his/her life.

The Decision to Try to Do Something about This

After the NACAC conference, I couldn't get these statistics out of my head. I wanted to do something about the dearth of information available to the underserved. Having counseled students about college admissions for more than twenty years, developed a free website about college admissions for students and parents, and just written a book, adMISSION POSSIBLE®: The "DARE TO BE YOURSELF" Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You, I know what people need to know and do about college admissions.

Underserved students with whom I work on a pro bono basis use libraries as a workspace, mostly because there they have access to functioning computers (which they often don't have at home) and an environment in which they can concentrate. I thought about what I might do with the San Diego library system. I first called Catherine Greene, head librarian of the La Jolla Public Library, to discuss my idea. We talked about using her library as a demonstration project for the rest of the 34 libraries in San Diego. I then spoke with Deborah Barrow, director of the San Diego Public Library system and suggested the following:

The Vision

To make the San Diego library system the "go to" place for underserved students to have access to the latest, best information about college admissions, as well as to working computers that they can use to complete college applications. This could be accomplished by the following:

  • Set aside a clearly marked library area dedicated to college admission with the best, most up-to-date college admissions books available
  • Have immediate access to bookmarked, most useful Internet admissions resources on library computers
  • Offer one-page handouts that provide information and easily implementable instructions about what to do and say in five important admissions areas:

-- How to choose extracurricular activities

-- What different admissions tests are, when and how to best prepare for and take them

-- How to write a college essay

-- How to complete college applications that stand out

-- What students and parents should know about financial aid

  • Provide free ongoing talks for ninth to 12th-graders about how they can prepare for college

The beauty in providing admissions information is that it is relevant to ALL students, not just underserved students.

I am pleased to report that this is actually happening in the San Diego Public Library system right now, thanks to some remarkable, forward-thinking librarians.