In Information Age, College Access Still Requires That Personal Touch

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Baltimore - To help America's low-income youths navigate the often frustrating and confusing process of getting into college, youth workers and college admissions officers must build personal relationships with each other to help smooth the way.

That message seemed to reverberate most strongly throughout the 65th annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which drew more than 5,000 youth workers here to this Chesapeake Bay city last week.

"Personal relationships with colleges matter greatly, and it's our job to cultivate that," Daniel Katz, a college adviser at Santa Monica, Calif.-based youth agency One Voice, told attendees at a conference workshop titled "How Partnering with CBOs Can Help You Reach Your College Access and Recruitment Goals."

To illustrate his point, Katz shared how one college flew 10 youths from One Voice to its campus for a fall visit. As a result of that visit, half of those youths decided to enroll at the college - a development that Katz said speaks to the power of putting personal contact into the process of college admissions.

Peter Van Buskirk, founder of The Admission Game, a Lancaster, Pa.,-based college planning firm, urged youth workers to make sure college admissions officers get apprised of a youth's "extenuating circumstances," not just their financial data, especially if those circumstances have negatively impacted the youth's academic performance or course-taking in high school.

Whereas financial information gets entered into computers, "extenuating information goes to people," Van Buskirk said during a workshop titled "Hotspots, Hooks and Hidden Agendas: An Inside Look at the College Admission Process."

As an example of the limitations of computers in the information age, Van Buskirk related the story of youth whose family relied solely on the FAFSA4caster, a U.S. Department of Education web-based tool meant to provide families with an "early estimate" of their financial aid, to determine whether they could afford to send the daughter to a particular college. The FAFSA4caster indicated that the youth's family had a $5,000 gap to fill, and her family concluded: "We can manage that."

But the college ended up using a different financial analysis provided through the College Scholarship Service Profile and concluded that the family had to provide $15,000 a year.

"All of the sudden she's in a bind," Van Buskirk said.


Hard to predict EFC

Similar situations can unfold with the Expected Family Contribution, better known as the EFC, Van Buskirk said, relating the story of a young man who applied to 19 different colleges and got financial aid offers that ranged from a full ride to another that "capped him severely" to another that offered a $17,000 "financing option."

"EFC is a crap shoot," Van Buskirk said. "EFC is something that's hard to hang your hat on any longer."

Calvin C. Wise III, a 2009 graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland who now works for the college as an admissions counselor, confirmed that face-to-face contact and supplemental information about a youth's life ultimately can influence a college's decision to admit the student.

"Having a personal connection with a student, I'm more willing to go out on a limb for them," said Wise, who is responsible for handling applications from youths in the City of Baltimore, including those involved with the city's CollegeBound program.

He said it's critical for youth workers who know a particular youth to help fill in the gaps and explain things that aren't reflected in a particular youth's college application.

"I might not know there was a death in the family or their parents broke up and they struggled in school," Wise said. "That's not going to be on the transcript."

James Rose, program manager at Reach4Success, a D.C.-based college access program, said the NACAC conference provided critical information to help him stay up to date in the ever-changing world of financial aid.

In his experience working with youths in Washington, D.C., Rose said, "The average student doesn't even believe they're going to live long enough to waste their time going to college."

One way to turn that bleak outlook around is to inform youths about all of the financial aid resources available to them. For instance, he said, he learned at one conference workshop that homeless students are now considered "independent" for the purpose of financial aid, which in turn makes them eligible to receive it.

Rose said he also planned to use the college search web sites he learned about in a workshop titled "The Real Scoop: College Costs and Student Outcomes Revealed," to help youths make better decisions about college. Those web sites are and

Even if the information on the web sites is somewhat outdated or not completely objective, Rose believes the web sites are still useful youth development tools.

"Even if the information isn't updated, it puts the students in the mind frame to think, to want to do research, because if they just spend the time on a web site like those to research schools, they'll do the same thing when it comes to finding scholarships," Rose said. "It develops them, if nothing else, to become researchers."


Latest from Capitol Hill

Workshop facilitators provided the latest information regarding pending legislation that involves assisting more low-income youths in going to college, in particular the Pathways to College Act, which would create competitive grants for school districts to establish college-going programs, and the Dream Act, which would enable the children of undocumented immigrants to enroll in college.

David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research for NACAC, told conference attendees that the Pathways to College Act "will probably not pass by itself but our intention is to include it in the reauthorizing of the No Child Left Behind Act." He advised attendees to check out for more information.

Similarly, Hawkins said, the Dream Act likely will not pass by itself, but could become part of a larger immigration bill.

James Montoya, vice president of higher education relationship development at the College Board, suggested the two acts could help the nation achieve the Obama Administration's goal of making the United States the world leader in the proportion of citizens who have earned college degrees - it currently is 10th in the world.

"It's not just that this nation has fallen so far," Montoya said. "It's that it's fallen so quickly."


Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at