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Replicating Success
Recent college grads help low-income students
navigate the path to college through innovative program.
By Blair S. Walker

A University of Virginia program with a track record of improving college enrollment and graduation among low-income students is being replicated at 10 other schools nationwide, with the help of a $10-million grant.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has decided to copy UVa’s three-year-old College Guide program, which uses recent UVa graduates to guide Virginia high school and community college students through the process of enrolling in four-year institutions.

Thanks to the Cooke Foundation, the program is being exported to Brown University, Franklin & Marshall College, Loyola College, Pennsylvania State University, Tufts University, the University of Alabama, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Missouri-Columbia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Utah, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Campus Compact.

Cooke Foundation officials say they hope to realize results similar to those achieved by the College Guide program at Holston High School in Damascus, Va. Prior to becoming involved with College Guide, Holston traditionally sent 50 percent of its graduates to some form of higher education.

That number increased to 85 percent after College Guide stepped into the picture.

The UVa program participants tap their own experiences to educate students at their assigned high school or community college about the college admissions and financial aid process. After six weeks of training, the UVa participants become quasi-guidance counselors and concentrate solely on encouraging and preparing students to attend college. 

UVa and the other 10 schools now embracing the College Guide rubric are collectively known as the National College Advising Corps, or NCAC. As is the case with UVa’s program, NCAC counselors will work for one nine-month academic year at their assigned school. In return, they receive housing and living stipends totaling $20,000, health insurance and a $5,000 scholarship to attend graduate school.

The counselors work for one academic year, but can stay longer. 

But participants at UVa also get something that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, says program member Paulin Cheatham, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2005. Cheatham, who now works at Bassett High School in rural southern Virginia, near the North Carolina border, calls the experience exhilarating.

“When I learned of the mission of the program, I felt that I had to give back, because they’re serving an area similar to where I grew up,” says Cheatham, who hails from a rural Virginia town of roughly 5,000 people. 
The most common question he hears at Bassett High comes from students wondering how their families can possibly afford college tuition. When assured that scholarships and loans are accessible, the second-most prevalent concern is preparing for the SAT and ACT. Cheatham, who also worked with College Guide last year, says he’s
used to rolling up his sleeves and helping Bassett students fill out standardized test applications.

“I see students throughout the day — there’s rarely a time when there isn’t one in my office,” he says. “During the financial aid season, I work in the local mall in the afternoons, to make myself available to parents.”

College Guide is the brainchild of UVa’s Dr. Nicole Farmer Hurd. Formerly an assistant dean and now College Guide’s director, Hurd got the program underway in 2004 with a $623,000 grant from the Cooke Foundation.

During the program’s second year, AmeriCorps contributed an additional $250,000. College Guide has grown from 14 participants in 2004 to
23 today. Those 23 students currently serve 21 Virginia high schools and two community colleges. 

“If you look at the academic research that’s been done on college access, it’s really peer-influenced,” Hurd says. “These recent graduates, even though they have four or five years on these high school students, are really seen as peers. They really have credibility, and I think that’s what makes this program a success.”Like most of the high school and community college students they mentor, many College Guide counselors are first-generation students from low-income households.

Although NCAC started in Virginia, the organization’s main office will be located on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill starting July 1. Hurd will be moving to North Carolina to serve as NCAC’s director.

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