In the Face of Challenge, Paving a Way to College and Career

The national college admissions bribery scandal has sparked a new level of attention on the competition and costs that together put college out of reach to many students. While the celebrity aspect of the story garners public attention, there is much work to do to level the playing field and invest in the potential of all young people.

And even though the process is incredibly complex and time-consuming, many families have the knowledge and resources to help their teenagers select the best school for them, navigate test prep courses, and apply for financial aid.

Avoiding “verification melt” and other challenges

However, students from low-income families or households with limited English proficiency, or students who are first-generation in their families to go to college, are often on their own when it comes to the college admissions process. And with the ratio of students to school counselors averaging 410 to one in Massachusetts, it’s unrealistic to expect that the schools can do it alone.

“There simply are not enough school counselors to help those students coming from homes where neither parent has finished college, and perhaps even high school, and where the family’s financial situation may make college seem completely out of reach,” says Linda E. Saris, Executive Director at LEAP for Education in Salem. “Research tells us that underserved students need extra support and resources to make it successfully through post-secondary education.”

Georgia Lederman, Manager of College Success and Alumni Engagement at the Cambridge-based Enroot, adds that when English is not the first language at home, families have difficulties understanding and translating the nuanced and complex details of the college application process. As a result, these students receive less support writing critical scholarship and college essays.

For students experiencing homelessness or not living with their parents, the process of gathering all forms of tax documentation, ordering tax transcripts from the IRS, printing different school-specific verification forms for each college they have applied to and sending signed copies through the appropriate channels correctly — and on time — can be overwhelming. They are particularly so if the responsibility for those steps falls to the student. Kaitlyn Farmer, the Project Launch Coordinator at RAW Art Works in Lynn, says the cost of not completing all of these verification steps can be devastating, resulting in the loss of grants and aid needed for students to attend the college of their choice.

“As a college access organization, we are here to ensure no student slips through the cracks and suffers from what the industry has deemed ‘verification melt,’” Farmer said. “No low-income student should have to navigate the complexities of financial aid verification on their own. But without the help of supportive college access programs, that is the reality many will face.”

Investing in the Future

Support for vulnerable students can begin well before they decide on their post-graduation path. This year, United Way is investing $5.58 million in 82 agencies that provide college and career readiness programming, funds that will help these organizations reach 44,803 school-age youth.

Recognizing that certain students  — low-income, first-generation to go to college, or who are from communities of color — need extra support and resources to make it successfully through post-secondary education, community-based programs are filling a critical need.

Enroot, for instance, matches students one-to-one with mentors and tutors and hosts monthly workshops that address essays and college processes. Their tutors and mentors support students with SAT preparation, referring students to free SAT preparation courses. Enroot works proactively to ensure students are skilled in financial literacy and budgeting and supports students in choosing financially feasible colleges. They also help students complete the FAFSA application process by partnering with uAspire, a nonprofit dedicated to financial aid literacy.

LEAP for Education in Salem recognizes the high potential of the students who are typically locked out of the traditional college pipeline and provides an on-ramp to 350 students in Salem, Peabody, and Gloucester into college. LEAP provides students with academic enrichment, community engagement, college and career exploration and advising, and personal development opportunities.

getting through one door can open many others

Salem School Committee member Manny Cruz can personally attest to the support these programs provide young people. Manny started attending LEAP when he was in middle school. He came from a low-income, single parent household where English was not spoken, and was a disengaged student, earning well below-average grades. The staff provided academic support, enrichment, and help with his social and emotional well-being throughout his middle and high school years.

LEAP staff helped Manny explore his interest in politics and social justice more deeply. Through weekly meetings his senior year with his LEAP adviser, he completed all his admissions applications, received enough financial aid to cover his tuition and enrolled at Salem State University to pursue a degree in Political Science. Wanting more work-based learning experiences, LEAP staff once again worked with Manny to submit his transfer application to Northeastern University and introduced him to a scholarship which provided him with full tuition.

Through social connections made by LEAP staff, Manny participated and later became Chair of Governor Deval Patrick’s Youth Council and earned a prestigious fellowship in the courts. During his time at Northeastern, Manny completed three co-op experiences and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Political Science.

Now, he’s giving back to the community that supported him.  After graduation, Manny was hired as a legislative aide to a state representative and won election to Salem’s School Committee on his first try. Manny joined the LEAP Board in 2018.

“LEAP staff put me on a pathway to college and career success by providing me with high quality experiential learning, academic support and mentoring,” Cruz said. “With LEAP I began to believe in myself and was able create a blueprint for my future.”

In the last 5 years, of the students who have actively attended LEAP’s programs for two years or more, 90% have enrolled in college, 72% have earned a college degree, and 85% have earned post-secondary credentials or degrees.

“Thanks to funding from the United Way, LEAP works tirelessly to close the opportunity and achievement gaps for hundreds more underserved students who have the potential to fill the jobs of tomorrow,” said LEAP’s Executive Director Linda Saris.