“I went through periods of very high anxiety… I had a panic attack.”
Fear gripped Sol Garcia of La Joya, TX, as she chased her dream of being the first college student in her immigrant family. “My dad is originally from Mexico,” says Garcia, who explains that her father never made it past the second grade. “He works under the sun every single day… in the fields. I wanted to make him proud.”
Sol was trying to open a door that is virtually locked. U.S. colleges are almost off-limits to students from low-income families. A scant 3 percent of students at the nation’s top 146 colleges come from households with earnings in the lowest income quartile. Only 9 percent of students from low-income households graduate from college, compared to 54 percent from upper-class families.
Did Sol accomplish her nerve-wracking task? Did she take the right classes, earn the required GPA, pay the giant cost, jump through FAFSA/SAT/ACT/AP hoops, navigate the essays, early admission strategies, letters of recommendation, and deadlines? “I’m now at UTRGV, the University of Texas in Rio Grande Valley,” she says. “Double major in English and Mass Communication. I received $96,000 in scholarships.”
Sol’s victory is due to her furious work ethic and courage. But she was also assisted day-to-day in near-infinite ways by counselors, teachers, and staff at her alma mater, Jimmy Carter Early College High School. Her against-the-odds success begs the question: What steps should all high schools take to make Sol’s success more common than the shameful 3 percent norm?
After examining multiple U.S. high schools that consistently launch a large number of their low-income students into college successfully, GreatSchools uncovered eight important supports these college-focused high schools typically provide for their students and their families.
College transition classes
Far too few high schools offer courses uniquely designed for college preparation. These classes deliver clear, step-by-step information and skills to help students with the college search, application, and financial aid process. The schools that offer these types of classes succeed by filling in the gaps their students need filled, especially for students who will be the first in their family to go to college.
Texas Academy of Biomedical Science (TABS) in Fort Worth, TX offers a course called Brainology taught by a teacher with a masters degree in brain studies. “She helps students learn how to study, how to take notes, how to deal with stress,” explains Principal Jack Jackson. At SABIS International in Springfield, MA, every student is required to attend a College and Career Readiness class one day per week during the entirety of their high school career. Valle Verde Early College High School in El Paso, TX provides a College Transition course twice a week that runs from their freshman year through the end of their junior year. IDEA Frontier Charter School in Brownsville, TX requires all students to take the course, The Road To and Through College, beginning in ninth grade.
Students in college transition courses learn whatever is necessary for the stage they are in. At Valle Verde High School, explains Principal Paul Covey, the freshmen and sophomore courses are “teaching kids how to take notes, how to read a college textbook, how to deal with college professors.” By their senior year, the course focuses on the financial aid process, personal essays, and resume building — and students have to apply to eight colleges and 10 scholarships.
College information workshops for parents
Parents in low-income families often believe college is too expensive and so an impossibility for their children. Many “just think that college is a pipe dream,” says guidance counselor Leah Liguori of East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, FL, “because they may not know what resources are out there for them.” In public workshops and individual meetings, high school college counselors should be on hand to explain how college is a realizable goal, no matter a family’s income bracket.
Pioneer Charter Schools of Science Network in Everett, MA, offers annual information presentations on financial aid to parents of juniors and seniors. SABIS International provides a college awareness night for parents of freshmen, plus a FAFSA completion night for parents of seniors. Many parent-friendly high schools, like Grayson High School in Louisiana, GA, also provide individualized counseling and financial aid research and assistance time to parents of college-bound students.
College counselors and college counseling centers
A Harvard University report states that the average ratio of U.S. students-to-counselors is 417 to 1, almost twice the 250 to 1 figure recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). California’s student-to-counselor ratio is the highest of any state in the U.S. with an average of 951 students to 1 college counselor.
High schools that get students from low-income families into college generally provide a more equitable student-to-counselor ratio. IDEA Frontier Charter School, for example, has three counselors who divide up the 90 seniors equally. Jimmy Carter Early College High School, where Sol studied, has a 70 to 1 ratio at their “Go Center,” which is conveniently located on the second floor of the library and outfitted with 15 computers. “The Go Center was a lifesaver,” Sol says.
Counselors should know how to use college-readiness software systems like Naviance and Avid, whose specific mission is “to close the opportunity gap” by motivating high schoolers with socioeconomic challenges. The best counselors reward students’ efforts with strategic praise. Dana Pugh, the principal at Grayson High School, says the eight counselors at his school’s College and Career Center use a big billboard called “Rams Going Places” (Ram is their mascot) to highlight which universities the students have been accepted to. “[We] put up their picture and the name of the university that they’re going to…. the students are clamoring … ‘Have you got my information?’ [We tell them], ‘You bring me your acceptance letter and then I’ll put it up!’”
There may be no better help to college-aspiring students than individual meetings with college counselors. At Pioneer Charter Schools of Science Network, one-on-one counseling starts with two meetings per student in the second semester of 11th grade; in 12th grade, students can meet as often as they want. Sol says at her high school, Jenny, the counselor, was always there when students wanted to stop by. “We would just go randomly when we had a question like during lunch [and ask] ‘Do you think you can help us?’ She didn’t mind at all. She was like, ‘Okay, of course, let’s get to it.'”
IDEA Frontier Charter School’s counselors follow best practices in their one-on-one meetings by strategically guiding students to the right colleges, based on their merit, financial needs, and personal needs, like location and campus culture.
“We craft a really carefully selected set of schools that our kids apply to, a combination of in-state and out-of-state, and we support them through that process,” explains Humberto Valdez, the director of counseling at IDEA Frontier Charter School. “If our kids apply to any random college they find online, some colleges will accept them, but they won’t accept them with a robust enough financial aid package to make attendance or matriculation possible. With us, it’s not just about applying to college. It’s about applying to the right colleges.”
SAT and ACT prep
Colleges and universities frequently examine an applicant’s SAT or ACT test scores to see if the student is adequately prepared for the educational rigors of their institution. Generally, there’s a score they want to see. Earning scores above that mark improves a student’s chances. Scores below that mark may lead to a rejection letter. High schools can help their students get into their dream college by offering SAT prep courses (and helping students navigate how their test scores will look to prospective colleges).
Pioneer Charter School of Science Network offers SAT prep to every junior. IDEA Frontier Charter School offers ACT prep courses in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade. Impressively, Pine View School in Osprey, FL, pays for 9th graders to take the PSAT. It also offers the SAT for free to students from low-income families. Given that the SAT test is $52, or $68 with the essay, these subsidies make all the difference. What’s more, Pine View provides an after-school SAT preparation class that is subsidized or discounted for students who are in need.
East Lake High School guidance counselor Leah Liguori provides a tip to help students from low-income families. “Counselors need to know how to access free SAT/ACTs for students who qualify, and how using a free SAT waiver can also provide the student with four application fee waivers.”
College fairs, visits, and peer mentoring
High schoolers from low-income families often realize they can enroll and thrive in college if they’re encouraged by slightly-older peers who made the leap. Similarly, visits to college campuses and seeing kids who look like them enjoying the experience gives a motivating boost. College fairs also provide an inspiring opportunity to talk to admissions directors and current students.
In fall 2022, Pine View’s Principal Stephen Covert says the school will host a TED Talk-type program with recently graduated alumni, “to share with our current students their college application process.” Mater Performing Arts Academy in Hialeah Gardens, FL, brings in alumni every spring break to meet with current students. They also promote summer academic programs, sending their students to faraway campuses like Cornell University and Carnegie Mellon University. They also pay for students to take annual college tours throughout their home state of Florida.
In 2021, college fairs went online due to Covid-19. Counselors can encourage juniors and seniors to attend these eye-opening events, like BigFuture Days, hosted in all 50 states by the College Board. By participating, students can chat with college student representatives from almost 500 colleges and ask questions in the live sessions with college admissions officials.
Financial aid guidance
FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) provides more than $120 billion annually in student financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education. Low-income families can qualify for up to $30,000 in college assistance each year in grants (free money that does not have to be paid back) and loans (with better interest rates and terms, but that need to be paid back). (You can use the FAFSA calculator to see estimates of how much money your student might qualify for in grants and loans.) But the intimidating form “has over 180 questions and is more than three times longer than the standard federal income tax form.” Even Bill Gates finds it “overly complex and confusing,” which helps explain why billions of dollars are uncollected each year since applicants are scared away by its difficulty. Ideally, every U.S. high school would provide FAFSA assistance to families, especially families that aren’t fluent in English.
SABIS International Charter School has a financial aid specialist in their college counseling center. “This individual sits with any senior interested in completing the FAFSA,” says Thomas Campagna, guidance department supervisor. “The specialist is also available for group and individual meetings with parents.”
Every September, Pioneer Charter Schools of Science Network offers FAFSA presentations to all juniors and seniors and their parents, as well as one-on-one help to seniors and their parents. East Lake High School guidance counselor Leah Liguori says they offer a “financial aid night that will help struggling parents not only figure out how to get financial aid, but also nights where parents can bring all their documents and someone will sit down with them to help them complete the FAFSA.”
Along with financial aid, there are thousands of college scholarships out there offering up more than $24 billion in money for college. High schools that successfully get students from low-income families into college provide scholarship assistance in various ways.
SABIS International sends scholarship information via emails, robocalls, and in-school announcements. Grayson High School has computers available for both students and parents, with a designated staff person to locate scholarships, post them, and keep track of where students are in their application processes. Perhaps best of all is the Valle Verde High School approach that requires all seniors in its college transition course to apply for 10 scholarships.
More help is needed
Even with these eight steps in place, the enormous costs of enrolling and graduating from college remains a big challenge for students from low-income families. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen the competition so fierce that only the top five percent get college taken care of for them,” says guidance counselor Leah Ligouri. “If you are not in that group, you are still looking at having to take out loans.” It is also unjust, she observes, that students from low-income families can only afford to take the SAT once or twice, whereas other students take the test up to “seven times.”
Key takeaways for…
Look for the following in a potential high school:
- Large numbers of college-bound grads who earn scholarships
- How many graduating students from low-income families attend 2- and 4-year colleges? Are students regularly awarded college scholarships?
- A good student-to-counselor ratio
- You’re looking for a ratio of 250 students per counselor or better. Ask how often students and parents have one-on-one sessions with counselors and what the college counseling program entails.
- College transition courses and SAT prep
- High schools committed to sending students to college should offer both.
- Financial aid workshops for parents
- Ask your high school if they offer guidance on how to navigate FAFSA applications and if so, in what form and how often.
- Dual enrollment and AP courses
- Dual enrollment and AP (advanced placement) courses are both widely available options that lets students take college-level courses and potentially earn college credit while still in high school. Ask about what your high school offers and how kids gain access to these classes.
- Presentations by alumni and admission directors
- Talking to admissions directors and graduates from their high school who now attend college can be invaluable motivation for juniors and seniors.
- Kudos for college-bound seniors
- Look for a bulletin board at school and other pro-college encouragements, such as lists on the school website of where graduating students went on to attend college.
For educators and administrators
- Read more about these programs and more research-backed ways schools and districts can support students in our Best practices for education section.
- Reach out to the principals at these schools to learn more about how they set up their programs, what works, and lessons learned.
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.