Many college students know from an early age that they are going to college. Many of their parents have gone to a university and understand the process. Every year, however, there are thousands of promising students who do not go to college simply because they do not understand the logistics of how to get in.
Julie Scott and Kacy Edwards found this out for themselves when they began teaching high school 12 years ago in southern Louisiana.
“When we asked the students if they wanted to go to college, they all said they were going, but most of them had no idea how to go about it, and no one to help them navigate through the process,” Scott says.
Students, most of whom were African-American, were unaware of things such as where and when to take the ACT or how to fill out financial aid forms and college applications. High school counselors were available to help students, but the ratio was generally 400 students to every counselor.
“We began spending our lunches and off-hours downloading applications to college, searching for scholarships and helping kids fill out ACT packets,” Edwards says.
Edwards and Scott also gave out their cell phone numbers and were constantly on-call to students who needed their help. Sometimes, something as small as not having money to pay for an application fee kept students from applying to school or registering for the ACT. Scott and
Edwards offered to pay for application fees for students and even let some students give them cash and helped them register online for the ACT using their personal credit cards or checks.
“Ultimately, we realized that these kids just needed someone to hold their hand and help them through the process,” Scott says.
“We had invested so much in the students, we didn’t think it was a good idea to just let them go after they left our classes.”
Edwards and Scott quit their jobs as teachers and, in 2006, created Career Compass of Louisiana, a nonprofit organization. During the past year alone, they counseled more than 6,000 high school students in 52 schools with 24 coaches. Career Compass counselors see every single high school senior at least twice during the year in these schools. Recently, they also began visiting eighth-graders in a handful of schools.
“We knew that there were after-school college counseling programs, but we thought the most effective way to touch these kids was to see them during the day because the ones who had jobs or did not have transportation or had babies could not come after school. Our goal was to get everyone, whether they were high-performing or low-performing students,” Edwards says.
During the past five years, 99 percent of Career Compass students have applied or were accepted to college. In Louisiana, 46 percent of high school graduates go to college, out of which 13 percent earn degrees, according to data posted on the organization’s website. Career Compass is a new organization; therefore, statistics on the percentage of its students who earn college degrees are not available.
The organization, however, has an 80 percent retention rate among its students who attend college.
Tyre Jenkins, who graduated from Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge, La., in 2010, is entering his sophomore year at Southeastern Louisiana University. While Jenkins always had a desire to go to college, he thought the best he could do was attend a community college instead of a four-year university.
“I didn’t want to be a financial burden on my mother, and my ACT scores weren’t all that great. But the Career Compass coaches encouraged me to go to a four-year college. They saw something in me and wanted to stick with me,” Jenkins says.
The Career Compass coaches encouraged Jenkins to take the ACT multiple times. (He took it six times and raised his score from a 15 to a 19.) They also helped him get a $15,000 scholarship.
Irene Hebert, the “scholarship guru” at Career Compass, insists that there are a lot more scholarships out there than most people realize, especially for African-Americans and other minorities.
“I always ask students if they have any special circumstances, whether it’s financial, family or health. There are scholarships for almost everything you can think of — dyslexia, spina bifida, people who come from single-parent homes, people who have a parent in jail,” Hebert says.
The Career Compass coaches also follow the progress of students through all four years of college.
“They don’t just throw you away,” Jenkins says. “I’ve been graduated from high school a year now, and I still talk to them at least two or three times a month. They’re always there for me when I get into some kind of bind or just when I need someone to talk to.”
But beyond just helping students with the logistics of college, Career Compass counselors — though their resources are limited — do what they can to prepare the students academically for the years to come.
“For all the kids I’ve ever taught, I made the offer that if they ever needed help with papers in college or filling out scholarship forms that I would help. They have my e-mail and phone number, and they all know they can contact me throughout the years,” Hebert says.