Michigan needs more college advisers, and recent graduates are helping

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Kasceen Anderson has a bunch of college options. Will it be the California performing arts college that requires an audition? The college that reached out to him unsolicited? Or will it be a couple of Michigan schools that have piqued his interest?

It would be enough to leave any senior stressing about how to make the right choice.

But Anderson, 17, of Oak Park has an edge at Ferndale High School: a college adviser whose sole purpose is to help him through this process.

“I know it’s a lot,” Daniel Lewis, the college adviser at Ferndale High, told Anderson as they discussed his college options one day. “But try to take it one day at a time.”

Lewis’ role as a college adviser is one that is becoming increasingly popular in Michigan schools, thanks in part to programs that train recent college graduates to work alongside high school counselors to provide one-on-one college advising to students.

These advisers help students through the process of selecting a college, applying for college, writing essays, applying for scholarships, filling out the important Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or guiding them through other post-secondary education options.

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Such programs are helping relieve pressure on guidance counselors, who in Michigan and across the nation are overloaded with students as districts have trimmed staff over the last decade.

In Michigan, the ratio of counselors to students is 732 students for every 1 counselor — one of the highest in the nation, according to data from the American School Counselor Association, which recommends a ratio of 250:1. Nationally, the ratio is 491:1.

“Our counselor ratios in Michigan are insane. This is helping to bridge some of that gap,” said Sarah Anthony, deputy director of partnerships and advocacy for the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN).

The organization produces one of those college advising programs. Called AdviseMI, it’s grown from 51 schools and 40 advisers in the 2015-16 school year to 70 schools and 56 advisers this school year.

And two state schools — Michigan State University and the University of Michigan — have programs through the national College Advising Corps that place advisers in more than 50 high schools.

The programs are nearly identical and have a common goal: Targeting schools and communities where there are a lot of high-need kids, particularly those who are low-income families, are first-generation college students or where the percentage of students pursuing college after high school is low.

“It’s been a good opportunity for our school and for our kids,” said Kimberly Ellis, one of the two guidance counselors at Ferndale High, which enrolls about 700 students. 

She initially was skeptical, though, because she was unsure about bringing in a recent college graduate who hadn’t majored in education. Lewis, 23, a graduate of Oakland University, is in his second year as the school’s adviser.

“We’ve been very fortunate. He’s been a positive person to have in the department and another set of hands so our kids get as much care as we can give them,” Ellis said. “Ultimately, we want to make sure our kids get their needs met.”

Insight and experience

Being a recent college grad is one of the biggest advantages of the program. Lewis is still in school, studying to receive a master’s degree in higher education leadership from OU. He said his current and recent college experiences give him “great insight into the things college students go through today.”

“He’s young so he understands young people’s problems because he just went through them recently. That can be very helpful,” said Juan Hughes, 17, a Ferndale High senior who frequently seeks out assistance from Lewis about scholarships.

The advisers serve up to two years, in part because program officials want people who are relatable to the high school students and not too detached from that college-preparation process.

Lewis’ day is spent working one-on-one, in small groups with students or in informal conversations with students in the hallway. He brings in representatives from various colleges. And he arranges college fairs.

On Thursday, for instance, he had students who are part of his senior seminar — something all seniors must take — play a college Jeopardy game created by OU.

Minutes after that seminar wrapped up, Mikhaella Norwood, an admissions counselor at U-M who’s based in Detroit, spoke to a group of about a dozen students about applying to the university — answering questions and giving them a rundown on the colleges students can apply to and tips for making their application stand out.

Students freely pop in to Lewis’ career center during free times — some to ask questions and others to use the computers that are set up in the room. Anderson came in to get help setting up an account for a website the school uses for students to request transcripts from their counselors. But he and Lewis ended up in a frank discussion about choosing a college.

Lewis told Anderson that it’s important to choose a college based not just on academics, but on campus life as well, including the kinds of activities he can get involved in.

“You’re looking for a home for the next four years,” Lewis said. “You want to make sure it has something for you to do in and out of the classroom.”

And during a discussion about a college that reached out to Anderson, Lewis advised him to keep his options open.

“A lot of schools do reach out,” he said. But, “the school that you might be most interested in, they might not reach out to you. You have to reach out to them.”

Applying for scholarships is particularly important for Hughes, given she’s one of six children in her family and would be the fourth in college next year. 

“This is only the second year I’ve known him and we’ve built a close relationship already, so I feel comfortable enough to come to him with problems or questions,” Hughs said. “You don’t have that relationship with every teacher in the building.”

For Lewis, the program is a way to “make a difference in my own way.”

He said this time of year is stressful for high school seniors, and rightly so, given they’re faced with life-altering decisions.

When he was a high school senior at Flint Northern High, he benefited from a college adviser.

“I would hang out with him … and soak up as much knowledge as possible. I kind of wanted to have that same impact on students.”

Patrick O’Connor, past president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and vice president of the MCAN board of directors, said a key point about the AdviseMi program is this: It’s not designed to replace counselors.

“These are students who have successfully completed college and they are able to show students, ‘I did it, you can do it, too.’ That’s the real plus,” said O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools. “What a lot of low income and first generation students need is examples of people who made it. And that’s what MCAN does very nicely.”

‘A way to give back’

MCAN previously partnered with the national College Advising Corps to create the programs at U-M and MSU. But in 2015, the organization decided to launch its own effort in order to reach more schools and students, said Melissa Steward, director of AdviseMI.

AdviseMI partners with 17 colleges and universities in Michigan — schools where they recruit students for the program. It also works closely with Americorps, which recruits young people to public service.

Americorps is a partial funder of the program and the college advisers are Americorps members, receiving a small stipend of about $24,000 a year. They’re also eligible for a stipend of $5,814 at the completion of their service — money they can use to further their education or pay off student loans.

Anthony, with MCAN, said the modest stipend reflects how passionate the college advisers are.

“They see this not just as their first job after college but as a way to give back, a way to serve. Some of them are serving communities they came from,” she said.

A measure of the success of the program, Steward said, is that increasing numbers of schools have expressed interest in a college adviser and some schools have opted to hire the college advisers that have been placed in their buildings. 

“Each year we receive double the applications than we’re able to bring on board,” Steward said. “As we grow and people find out (about the program), they come knocking on our door.”

Anderson, who is interested in majoring in media arts, said Lewis is “getting me up to date in knowledge,” about the college preparation process.

“There are things I didn’t know that I’m starting to learn,” Anderson said. “He’s telling me what to expect.”

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins

Legislation targets guidance counselors

Legislation before the Michigan Senate would put new rules in place for guidance counselors renewing their license. Of the 150 hours of continuing education counselors must receive to renew their license, the legislation would require at least 50 of those hours cover college preparation, selection and career counseling.

The legislation passed the House in May on a 140-7 vote and on Oct. 4, moved out of the Senate Education Committee unanimously with a recommendation of approval.
 

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