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For more than a decade, the College Advising Corps has steadily built a network of nearly 650 dedicated college counselors in high schools that serve large numbers of low-income and first-generation students in 14 states. In many of those schools, the ratio of students to college counselors is worse than the national average of 482:1, and the advising corps's troops are designed to ensure that students in the schools not only consider going to college but "are matched to and ultimately get through a place that get them a credential," says Nicole Hurd, the group's founder and chief executive officer.

The program has been proven (through research by scholars at Stanford University) to significantly increase the rate at which students in the schools take standardized tests (13 percent), apply for federal financial aid (27 percent), apply to multiple colleges (24 percent) -- and ultimately, get accepted by a college that suits them (24 percent). The group estimates that its work has helped about 300,000 more low-income, first-generation and other underrepresented students enroll in the "whole vast array" of colleges since 2005 than would have otherwise.

At a time when higher education leaders (prodded, increasingly, by policy experts and politicians) are paying more attention than ever to the need to enroll such students -- for the sake of the students and the country's economic future -- the College Advising Corps may be particularly well-positioned to help make that happen.

That's certainly what Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, and his wife Connie believe, as their unrestricted gift of $20 million is designed to help the advising corps meet an audacious goal of more than doubling (to 700,000) by 2025 the roughly 300,000 students it has helped since 2005.

“A college education does more to boost economic mobility than perhaps any other step a young person can take,” Connie Ballmer said in an announcement of the group's ambitious goal.

Hurd, a former University of Virginia administrator who, with assistance from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, took the advising corps national more than a decade ago after piloting it at Virginia, says the Ballmers' gift (and the additional raised money she hopes that will follow) will allow it to get bigger and, perhaps more importantly, better.

The Corps's Partner Colleges
Boston U
Brown U
Davidson College
Duke U
Franklin & Marshall College
Furman U
Georgia State U
Kansas State U
Michigan State U
New York U
North Carolina State U
Texas Christian U
Texas A&M U
Trinity U
U of California, Berkeley
U of Chicago
U of Georgia
U of Michigan
U of Missouri
U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
U of Southern California
U of Texas at Austin
U of Virginia
Washington U in St. Louis

The bigger is expected to come in the form of an expanded footprint. In 2017-28, the group had 654 counselors (who generally match the students they are serving: more than 80 percent are themselves either first-generation, eligible for Pell Grants, or members of underrepresented minority groups) in 646 schools serving roughly 200,000 students. In each area a college or university (the full list of current partners is at right) makes a major commitment of time and money to anchor the advisers' work -- most notably covering their salaries.

"I can't overstate how important they are in the work," Hurd said, noting that the colleges and universities pick up close to half of the overall cost of the group's work.

In the years ahead, the advising corps expects to move into new geographic areas with more college and university partners and ultimately roughly half again as many high schools, toward a goal of roughly 1,000. In New York City, for instance, the group plans to more than double its school count from 46 now to 60 next year and 100 by 2020, Hurd said.

But the group's increased impact may result more from improving than from growing. Working for nearly a decade with researchers from Stanford and with Bain, the College Advising Corps has learned a lot about what parts of its work drive success and where it needs to get better.

Hurd expects to ramp up the group's work in getting students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and in involving parents in the college decision making process of their children. (An experiment the group did with texting information to parents was successful and will be expanded, Hurd said.)

The other significant way the advising corps will be deepening its work is by reaching further into higher education, working with partners like the College Board, the Dell Foundation and Beyond 12 to try to better ensure that the students the College Advising Corps helps get to college actually succeed there.

Hurd believes the advising corps's work is life-changing for the students it serves, of course. But she's got other motives as well. At a time when Americans are increasingly questioning the value of higher education, in part because colleges and universities aren't doing nearly as well educating low-income and other underrepresented students as they are with wealthier Americans, Hurd hopes that "lifting up the diversity of higher education" may help "restore the American public's faith in higher education."

"Education," she says, "is the only way to get out of poverty in any meaningful way that can be replicated over time."

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