Corps aims to help low-income students get to college

A White House meeting of higher education leaders Thursday will spotlight a plethora of efforts to draw more students from low-income families into college, one of President Obama’s top priorities.

Among them is a program that sent Alexandria Johnston, 21, a brand-new graduate from the University of Virginia, to southern Virginia to help disadvantaged high school students navigate the labyrinths of applying to college and obtaining financial aid.

Johnston, of Virginia Beach, has firsthand experience with what the high school students are facing. She received federal Pell grants throughout her studies at U-Va. because her family had financial need. Now, as a member of the College Advising Corps, she aims to help students at Chatham and Gretna high schools in Pittsylvania County who face similar circumstances as they consider where to go college and whether they can afford it.

Based in North Carolina, the corps is a national program that resembles Teach for America. It draws recent college graduates into the educational system, training them to advise high school students and paying them modest stipends for two years to work in communities with significant economic needs. Colleges and foundations support the initiative.

The corps aims to supplement what high school counselors do. Often those counselors have huge caseloads and are unable to give individual students enough attention.

On Thursday, the corps plans to announce a $10 million gift from the John M. Belk Endowment to expand its work in rural North Carolina, as well as commitments from several colleges elsewhere to expand the number of graduates in the program. The corps has 375 advisers in Virginia and 14 other states. Plans call for the corps to have more than 500 advisers in the coming year.

Johnston said she often helps students just by accompanying them through the arduous and time-consuming work of filling out applications. “Being able to sit right next to them and go through the process with them, that’s the biggest thing they need,” she said.

It also helps that she is not much older than the students she’s advising. Sometimes, Johnston said, students are “more willing to listen to us than they are to a guidance counselor or teacher who is 30 or 40 years their senior. Honestly, it’s true. We look like them, we talk like them. We kind of dress like them.”

The announcement of the expansion of the advising corps is one of many that Obama and his aides will promote as the fruit of an unusual “summit meeting” of higher education scheduled for several hours at the White House.

To participate in the summit, colleges were asked to pledge new initiatives to expand college opportunity. A summary from the White House said the request yielded more than 100 “new commitments” from colleges and other organizations. None of them appeared to involve any new federal spending.

For example, an organization called the Posse Foundation plans to announce that it is doubling, to 10, the number of schools it works with to expand college education in science, technology, engineering and math for underprivileged students.

The College Board plans to announce that it is working with colleges to enable qualified students who take the SAT to receive fee waivers to apply to up to four colleges for free. Numerous other announcements are expected from colleges and other organizations.

The University System of Maryland plans to promote a partnership with Montgomery County public schools and Montgomery College that will identify about 1,000 underprivileged 10th-graders with college potential. Those students, according to university system Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, will receive extra support in various ways to give them a path to a bachelor’s degree through Montgomery College and an education center the system operates called the Universities at Shady Grove.

Plenty of higher education leaders won’t be attending the summit. One of them said the White House is overlooking schools that have deep expertise on the issue.

“Those of us who really know about educating low-income students should not be frozen out of the conversation,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in the District, which specializes in educating women from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The White House is not listening to people who know something about this particular dimension of higher education. And it ain’t easy.”

But Kirwan praised the president and first lady for emphasizing educational access and opportunity.

“This is a personal top priority of mine,” Kirwan said. “I am thrilled that the president and, to her credit, the president’s wife, have kind of made this a signature initiative for the remainder of his administration.”

Nicole Hurd, founder and chief executive of the College Advising Corps, said the summit meeting provides groups such as hers with an extraordinary opportunity for fast-track expansion.

“The White House gave us an HOV lane,” Hurd said, drawing an analogy to a high-occupancy vehicle lane on a busy highway. “And we are taking it. It’s exciting.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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