Fixing the Degree Divide

This month, as college acceptance notices arrive across the country, we will either come closer to achieving more economic equality in the U.S. or we will continue maintaining an inexcusable status quo. Study after study shows a college degree makes a difference. Salaries, reports the National Center for Education Statistics, are 57% higher for those with a college degree versus those with only a high school degree. Clearly, education is the only true equalizer.

For Ricardo, it was a dream come true. He was accepted to New York University. Madison is on her way to Wesleyan University; Clifford is off to Union College; and Jose is going to Gettysburg College. All are students from schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City whose futures have become a lot brighter.

Yet, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy report that the college gap is widening. Since 1970, bachelor degrees among the nation's most affluent students have catapulted from 40 percent to 77 percent - and barely moved from a scant 6 percent to 9 percent, among the nation's lowest-income students.

There is a simple, affordable and proven solution to closing the degree divide, and it is currently underway in some of New York City's lowest-income high schools. When local school boards allocate funding to hire full-time, highly trained college counselors in low-income public schools, suddenly students like Ricardo, who may have fallen through the cracks, don't.

College counseling in underserved schools is highly inadequate. Even if there is a college counselor on staff, that person is often untrained, pulled in all directions to fill other gaps, and saddled with an absurd caseload. In fact, in some of New York City public schools, the student to counselor ratio is 449 to 1, even though research shows one-on-one counseling makes a transformative difference.

Fifteen years ago, we created a program that builds a pipeline to college for low-income students. The CollegeBound Initiative (CBI) is an on-site college counseling program funded through public and private partnerships. Through CBI we place full-time, highly trained college counselors, like Ricardo's counselor Zee Santiago, in 27 public schools in New York City. Just as in the best private schools, CBI counselors do it all. Zee helps students with college selection, tours, test prep, financial aid, scholarship resources, applications, essays, and interviews. CBI counselors' sole responsibility is to work with students, as early as sixth grade to create a college going culture.

The numbers show the success. According to an independent evaluation conducted by Policy Studies Associates, students counseled through CBI enroll in four-year and private colleges at nearly double the rate of their peers. And, since the establishment of CBI, counselors have helped secure more than $250 million dollars in financial aid for our students.

In fact, by working with Zee on financial aid forms, scholarships and grants, Madison received more than $64,000 to attend Wesleyan; Clifford received $61,000 for Union; and Jose is getting $67,000, making it possible to attend Gettysburg. Ricardo is receiving full-tuition for NYU. The financial aid is expected to continue throughout each student's four years.

As our families know, it's a remarkable moment when college acceptance letters and financial aid packages arrive. This is the moment the cycle of poverty begins to end. In an instant, the magnitude of what has happened brings tremendous relief, joy, and pride for parents who may have lost their own shot at the American dream. And for the student, a college acceptance with aid creates a world of possibilities away from the poverty trap.

The U.S. Department of Education describes school counselors as some of the "hardest-working, caring, and critically important adults charged with putting young people on the path to college." We could not agree more and we know firsthand that the power of counseling students and their families through the daunting process of college admissions is not only is priceless.

Ann Rubenstein Tisch is the founder of the Young Women's Leadership Network and the co-ed CollegeBound Initiative, which serves more than 15,000 low-income students in New York City.