An Educated Guess

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Bethesda, Md.—Eighteen-year-old Eduardo Sartor arrived at the office of Collegiate Directions Inc. late last month with his parents, a stack of folders, and a dozen or so days to make one of the most important decisions of his life.

Each folder contained an acceptance letter and financial aid offer from one of eight colleges, out of the 11 to which he had applied.

Spread out over a long table in a cozy office building conference room, each folder represented a door to a promising future.

But which door made the most sense to enter?

National Candidates’ Reply Date – the May 1 deadline by which most colleges require a decision and an enrollment deposit – loomed just 12 days away.

“It is a ton of pressure,” said Theresa Atta, executive director at Collegiate Directions Inc. (CDI), a nearly five-year-old nonprofit that is just one of the many college access and counseling organizations that were busy last month helping students choose colleges.

“You want to compare financial aid offers and talk with your family about this versus that, and some offers don’t come until the last week of April,” Atta said. “It’s quite nerve-racking.”

Sartor, a senior at Paint Branch High School in suburban Montgomery County, Md., said he got involved with CDI because he anticipated that selecting a college would be a tough process.

His parents are immigrants from Brazil. His father is a home builder who has seen the economy hurt his efforts to put away money for his son’s education.

“How are we gonna pay?” Sartor said when asked what was on his mind before the counseling session. “At the same time, where am I going to be successful and have opportunity? You have to balance the two.”

First-generation and low-income students

CDI is helping a small but growing number of first-generation college students and youths from low-income families achieve such balancing acts each year.

Started in 2005 by Nina Marks, a former teacher and college counselor, CDI’s stated mission is to provide “comprehensive college counseling services and ongoing support – beginning in high school and continuing through college graduation – to a target population of low-income, first-generation-to-college students.”

The nonprofit organization, which operated on $264,000 in 2008, much of it from various foundations and similar groups, is gradually getting closer to its goal of serving 120 youths at a time. Each year it selects about 20 junior-year students from six area high schools who’ve been nominated by their high school counselors, and the agency stays in touch with them through college – a total time span of six years.

The organization boasts a 100 percent college acceptance and retention rate at an impressive list of colleges and universities throughout the United States. It also boasts that its youths have won some of the most coveted scholarships, such as the highly competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship. In total, CDI says, youths in the program win $6 in grants and scholarships each year for every $1 invested in CDI.

The organization is listed in the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, published by the Harman Family Foundation, a nonprofit that supports programs that connect youths with education and the arts in four metropolitan areas, including Washington.

The listing for small nonprofits is achieved only after a team of reviewers from the nonprofit world, corporate giving programs and local government have analyzed an agency’s I.R.S. Form 990s, conducted a site visit and looked at other aspects of a program for evidence of distinction, merit, cost-effectiveness and accomplishment.

The fact that CDI serves mostly “high-achieving” low-income students who have a grade-point average of around 3.0 may explain part of the group’s success. The demographics of the young people it serves are partly determined by the youths who are nominated. The class of 2010 has 50 percent males, although that’s an aberration; most of CDI’s clients are young women.

Youths who’ve been through CDI say the counseling and assistance they received from the group was crucial to their postsecondary success.

SAT prep to admission essays

“If it was not for them, I would not be at the University of Virginia,” Nahum Goba, a 2009 Wheaton (Md.) High School graduate who immigrated at age 6 from Ethiopia with his mother, said via his Facebook page.

He said his mother worked hard jobs to make ends meet and struggled to learn English. She raised Goba in low-income housing in Rockville, Md.

Goba said CDI provided SAT prep and tutoring, revised his college entrance essays and paid for his applications to college, and also provided rides, snacks and counseling if he ever had a problem with family or friends.

Many of the youths at CDI share similar stories. That’s largely because of the behind-the-scenes work that it took to get them from being aspiring college students to actually being enrolled.

That work becomes more intense as National Candidates’ Reply Day draws near. Youth Today was permitted to observe two recent meetings involving students, parents and CDI counselors.

The half-hour sessions started and stopped like clockwork. They involved laptops and calculators to help students compare the colleges’ various offers and then figure out which one was best suited to their academic and social needs, and their career ambitions – within the realm of affordability.

Asked for his first choice for college, Sartor answered that it was Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – an aviation and aerospace school in Dayton Beach, Fla., that was founded in the barnstorming days of the 1920s.

Asked to explain his rationale, Sartor noted that the school has a “high-performance vehicle” track for mechanical engineers – something in line with his lifelong interest in cars.

Marks, the CDI president who also provides pro bono services as a counselor for the organization, advised Sartor to think of his choices in terms of which of his offers made the most financial sense.

“Look at the numbers,” Marks told Sartor.

The numbers showed that Sartor could enroll at his second choice – Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. – for about one-fourth the cost to him of Embry-Riddle, where Sartor and his parents would have to borrow nearly $27,000 per year, after financial aid.

“That’s a lot of debt, isn’t it?” Marks asked Sartor. At Randolph-Macon, Sartor had received a total award of $35,000 per year on an annual cost of about $40,000.

“You can go to Randolph-Macon for four years and have less debt than one year at Embry,” Marks said.

Randolph-Macon doesn’t have a direct engineering program per se; engineering is offered through a consortium of universities for students who major in physics.

A plan for completion

Sartor said his father thought that since the family had enough to cover his first year at Embry, why not just enroll him in the school now and do whatever it takes to keep him there afterward?

None of the CDI staff members thought that was a good idea.

“That second year comes up quicker than you know,” Atta cautioned, adding that CDI’s goal is not only to help youths enroll in college, but to help them complete college. “One of the primary reasons students drop out is because they don’t have the money.”

Peter Van Buskirk, a veteran college admissions expert and founder of The Admission Game, a college counseling firm, said he found no fault with that advice.

“A good fit is always [a college] that values the student for what he does well,” Van Buskirk said. “The statement of the value is often implicit in the financial aid that is offered. While both schools liked the young man well enough to admit him, Randolph-Macon was prepared to invest more substantially in his success.”

Atta said she has seen families take out second mortgages and use credit cards to finance their children’s college education.

But she said the Sartors don’t have to do that, because their son has choices – choices Sartor said he wouldn’t have had were it not for CDI, whose staff members encouraged him to apply to more schools than he initially planned.

Sartor ultimately settled on Randolph-Macon, where he will enroll as one of the school’s Presidential Scholars.

However, if he decides to study engineering, it will be after three years at Randolph-Macon and then through a partnership with the University of Virginia (UVA) or Columbia University, where he will be required to study two more years – for a total of five years – to earn an engineering degree.

That essentially turns a four-year college experience into a five-year experience. Plus, tuition fees and institutional aid will change if Sartor transfers to UVA or Columbia.

Thus, while Sartor has made some good opening moves in the chess game that going to college is, the endgame will be altogether different.

“These types of questions are precisely why CDI stays with students throughout their college years, to work through important decisions and explore new opportunities,” Atta said. “We stay in contact with students and the college at which they matriculate throughout their path to graduation.”

Contact: Collegiate Directions Inc., (301) 907-4877, http://www.collegiatedirections.org.