When it comes to convincing kids at low-income high schools that they can find a way to pay for college, a single optimistic adviser can make the difference for hundreds of students, according to Scott L. Thomas,  associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education.
Thomas described his research Monday at the annual meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, in New York City. Thomas is studying the efficacy of policies that seek to make college available in various cultural and socioeconomic settings.
One of his most interesting finds so far is that the college aspirations of many students in disadvantaged high schools hangs by the thread of a single adviser. "At poorer schools that buck the trend and send a lot of kids to college, it’s maybe one, two or three counselors that are orienting them toward college," Thomas said. "It’s comforting that a few people can make a difference."
Barry W. Simmons, director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, asked Thomas if high school principals set the agenda for the counselors. "No," he replied. "There’s tremendous turnover in principals, and the counselors outlast them. They often do what they do in spite of principals." In the only comment that provoked head nods across the room, Thomas added that, while he was heartened by the fact that a small group of committed people can make a difference, "it scares me to the death, because [the few counselors] can leave easily."
Thomas said that simply having that tiny core of counselors who create an atmosphere that says "college will be available when the time comes" can set the tone for an entire school.
He also found that the general outlook of counselors varied from state to state.
In California, a state that has a large need-based financial aid program, he was surprised to find that counselors often weren’t uniformly optimistic about college prospects for students from poor high schools. In Florida, however, where state aid is less plentiful, advisers had a sunnier outlook. “In Florida, there’s the feeling that if a student really wants to go to college, they’re definitely going to be able to go somewhere,” he said. “In California, counselors had a less sanguine attitude. Only if you really pushed them, they’d often agree a student could probably at least go [to college somewhere].”
He could not explain the discrepancy with certainty, but said that California counselors may reflect the state’s financial uncertainties. “There’s so much public talk about the cost of college going through the roof and about fiscal crisis in California,” he said.
In Miami-Dade County, one of Thomas’ main study areas, some of the poor high schools had average SAT scores 100 points or more below the state average of 994. Yet, those schools often were not far behind wealthier Miami-Dade high schools in the percentage of students that go on to college. Several of the poor schools even topped 60 percent of students going on to college, more than at some of the rich schools, which had higher average test scores and more Advanced Placement test takers.
Thomas attributed at least some of that to the College Assistance Program counselors, one per Miami-Dade school, in addition to regular counselors, who are dedicated “to encouraging underrepresented people,” he said. “They make a huge difference.”
Not only do the special counselors send more students to college, Thomas said, but they also often go above and beyond the call of duty to see that their students will actually succeed in college. “You see a lot of purely voluntary follow up,” he said of the Miami-Dade counselors’ relationships with students who go on to college. “And sometimes they’ll bring them back to talk to [high school seniors] about their struggles and successes. That’s what we’ve seen as effective in low-income schools.”