The Right Fit: Low-income Students and College Success

As a follow-up to my last post, it's time to tackle the challenges of finding the "right fit." Matching low-income students -- or all students for that matter -- to colleges has been written about in books, articles and blogs. In fact, I have addressed this issue previously, by creating a quiz to help students find the right size fit when searching for a college or university.

With all that knowledge and information, have we discovered the best way to find the right fit? The answer is no.

First, we would need even more well-trained school counselors than our schools currently employ, individuals who are familiar with many of the institutions of higher learning in America and have actually reviewed programs (brick and mortar and online). We would need counselors who have visited campuses relatively recently, including those at considerable distance from their school's location.

Vermont, among other states, offers a weeklong bus tour where counselors from across the country visit between 15 and 20 colleges. Yes, it is a bit of a rush but it is better than nothing. It is offered at no cost to the counselors -- but at a not insubstantial cost to the colleges visited. Some colleges pay for counselors to visit their campuses -- and among wealthier colleges, those visits can include ski trips and other niceties.

Next, our school counselors or mentors would need the time and expertise to develop sufficient knowledge about their students to help them find the type of school and program that would be compatible with their personality, learning style, interests, and academic preparedness. When a counselor's caseload exceeds 400 students, it is hard to know each student; indeed, counselors often know the under-achieving students more than those who are proceeding along a pathway to success.

Just take the size issue: Which students are better suited to a smaller, more intimate institution where professors know their names and where their absence in class will be both noted and addressed and which are better suited to a large institution with large classes and greater autonomy? Which students would thrive in a rural environment and which would only be comfortable in a large city?

Beyond that, we would need interpretive strategies for evaluating published rankings such as US News and the federal government's Scorecard, all of which focus on some key aspects of college choice but do not address the intangible factors that distinguish one institution from another -- and it is often these factors that contribute to student retention.

But, the best way to determine fit is a campus visit, where prospective students can see and get a feel of an institution; they can talk to those professionals and enrolled students who will support them and their goals. This is how they get a "sense of place." At Southern Vermont College, prospective students and families also stop by the president's office, and I often interrupt meetings to welcome these visitors to our campus. All this costs money and time, for students, families and chaperones. And, a tour itself is not enough (although often billed that way); those visiting need help evaluating what to look for and what they are seeing on their visit.

And, we need to do more than one-off visits. We can invite some prospective students and their parents to longer on-campus programs, easing the comfort level before the academic year begins, all without cost to the families. Students should also revisit the first college they see; the experience of visiting different institutions changes one's perspective.

The bottom line is that determining fit is costly. It is not like stepping into and out of a dressing room at a mall. Six dollars will not do, as I referenced in my earlier blog post. The number must be closer to $6,000. Imagine the monies spent by wealthier families to hire college advisers and then visit campuses, often with overnight stays and plane trips, not to speak of days taken off from work. Some colleges, through grants and other initiatives, do offer students free transportation to their campuses and on-campus housing without cost but these opportunities are limited.

One new plausible solution worthy of consideration -- suggested by our provost -- is a "pre-Pell" grant to vulnerable high school students to enable college visits. Of course, there would need to be safeguards to insure the monies were actually spent appropriately and that these college visits produced measurable positive results in terms of enrollment. Perhaps the institutions themselves could sign off on the visits and submit some online voucher that would enable repayment of the expenditures to prospective students and their families.

I appreciate that expanding government-subsidized grants does not have political appeal. But, spending all the money we do on Pell grants with such limited success for the low-income recipients suggests that we ponder other ways to meet our shared goal of helping vulnerable students succeed in higher education.

Of course, buying an education is not like buying a blue sweater or shoes as discussed in my prior post. We all get that. But, at least with clothing and shoe purchases, we know the value of trying on what we are buying. Would that we exhibited similar insights into fit when buying one of our nation's best appreciating assets: an education.