For Thomas Hall ’16, the conversation started as it often does with one of his seniors – the kid was a strong student, pretty motivated, but completely uninterested in college or the college process. He just did not see the point. But, with the hopeful air of a rookie college advisor and the prodding of the student’s mother, a special education teacher at the school, Hall sat him down to hear what he had to say. “The more we talked the more it became clear that he did want to go to college, he was just scared,” said Hall.
Conversations like these are the day-to-day experience for Hall who works for the College Advising Corps (CAC). The CAC is a national organization that works to increase the number of first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students who enter and complete post-secondary education. Using a “near-peer” advising model, the organization employs recent college graduates and imbeds them in rural schools where resources are spread thin. In 2017-2018, the CAC will serve 646 public high schools across 14 states, providing support for the college admissions process, securing financial aid, and successful enrollment.
Davidson College is home to one of the 24 CAC partner programs at higher education institutions across the country. It was launched in 2014-2015 with 9 advisors and has grown rapidly over the last few years. The Davidson chapter now employs 17 advisors, serving 18 schools in western North Carolina. Although it is atypical in comparison to the larger universities that partner with the CAC, Kyle Goodfellow, a national representative, sees Davidson’s mission to prepare students for lives of leadership and service as a natural fit.
“Davidson students are passionate about making an impact on the greater good and College Advising Corps provides a great foundation for recent graduates to put this mission into action,” said Goodfellow.
In an age where the importance of a college degree is at an all time high, the work of the college advisors is extremely pertinent. According to Georgetown’s Center on Education, it is estimated that by 2020, 67% of in-state jobs will require post-secondary education, yet less than 30% of North Carolina adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
This deficit is especially clear among low-income families in which, nationally, just 1 in 10 family members have a college degree as recorded by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Typically, said Program Director Mary Alice Katon who has led the Davidson affiliate since its inception, the schools that the Davidson Corps serve fall into this cohort, with a high percentage of students on free or reduced meal plan.
For Alyssa Glover ’17, an advisor embedded at North Carrabus High School, the CAC serves to address inequalities that exist “because a lot of the time, these populations just aren’t at the table, and furthermore, don’t know that they should be.”
Katon, who has more than 20 years of education access experience, agreed. “[For] a student who goes to a private independent high school and comes from a family whose parents went to college, and might have siblings that went to college, there [are] a lot of things, inherently, that they know they need to or should do,” she said. “I think that by offering this opportunity to students in these underrepresented schools, it helps level the playing field and helps students who might not otherwise realize it, that they can do more than they might have thought they could do.”
According to data provided by the CAC, nationally, the student to advisor ratio is 450:1, leaving many students with just 20 minutes per year with a college advisor. “It’s not because the schools don’t care about them, it’s that they don’t have enough time or the infrastructure to help these kids thinks bigger,” said Katon.
Glover added, “Usually people don’t do something because no one has told them that they can. We are those people that are there to tell them, if they want to, that they can do it.”
However, toeing the line between building a “college-going culture” and affecting the fundamental fabric of the population can often be difficult. It is vital, said Katon, the advisors understand the culture of the school: “Their job is not to change how everyone thinks; their job is to make students aware… with grace and humility.” She added, “Their job is not to fix it; their job is to promote it.”
Success can be hard to quantify, even for a data-driven organization like CAC, where for some it could be finally going to visit a school or filling out a FAFSA, while for others it might be admission to the school of their dreams. Regardless of the measure, reports have continued to find that the CAC makes a marked difference on their target students.
According to Davidson-specific survey data collected by the CAC, students who have worked with a CAC advisor are 31% more likely to submit at least one application and, just two years after having an embedded advisor, schools on average see an 8% increase in college enrollment per National Student Clearinghouse.
The Davidson Corps emphasizes what they call ‘Starfish moments to measure success.’ “It comes from one of those old wives-tales, where a little girl was picking up stranded starfish on beach and throwing them back into the ocean,” said Hall. “A man comes up to her and says ‘What are you doing? You can’t save them all’ and the little girl replies, ‘Well I just helped that one’.”
For some, like Hall and Nathan Higdon ’18, who applied for the CAC program after a shadowing experience earlier this month, it is an opportunity to give back to rural North Carolina – communities similar to those where they grew up – that draws them in.
“I’ve lived the experience of not having much college advising available to me,” said Higdon. “It’s definitely one of the driving factors.”
For others, like Glover, it is a creative opportunity to explore an interest in education.
Furthermore, the experience has shown to be transformative for future plans. In Davidson CAC surveys pre-service, 47% of advisers thought they would pursue a career in the education sector. Post-CAC service, the percentage increased to 82%.
Beyond opportunities for professional development and AmeriCorps grants towards graduate school or college loans, Hall and his fellow advisors stressed the immense fulfillment the CAC experience provides.
Within a week of talking with Hall, his student had applied to four colleges. Within a few months, he enrolled at UNC-Charlotte, studying to be a high school English teacher.
“When he came to me on graduation day he told me that, without our talk, he wouldn’t be going to college, how grateful he was,” said Hall. “That’s my proudest moment, that this one little talk really transformed this kid’s future.”
The deadline to apply for the two-year college advisor position is February 21st, open to graduating seniors, and alumni from recent ’15-’17 classes only. The CAC will be holding a recruitment event at 7:30 p.m. in the Union Sprinkle room tomorrow, Thursday, February 15.