"I Believe in You": the Power of Near-Peer Advisers and the College Advising Corps

“I believe in you.” These are powerful words and ones that many of our high school students across the country and in Kansas City need to hear.

In 2005, while I was serving as an assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of Virginia, I became aware of our student to counselor ratio in high schools. With an average of 471:1, our heroic school counselors only have 20 minutes per student per year to provide guidance, including navigating the path to college.

Why does this matter? Our nation is facing a crisis in access to education and opportunity. Too many low-income, first-generation college and underrepresented students are not receiving the advice and support they need to identify and enroll in colleges where they stand a good chance of graduating. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs today require a postsecondary education, yet the U.S. lags behind other nations in the number of young adults enrolled in higher education. This is disproportionately true for low-income students. Nearly a quarter of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never go to college, and many of the remaining 75 percent who do attend college never attain bachelor’s degrees.

As a university administrator, my mind immediately went to the amazing students I was advising on their post-graduation plans. If we could send our best and brightest to teach in Los Angeles or help with water purification in Ecuador after graduation, surely we could keep them in Virginia (or Missouri and Kansas). Who better than students from similar backgrounds and circumstances to help students navigate the complex world of college admissions and financial aid? Who better to say, “I believe in you?” This was the impetus for the College Advising Corps, which was launched with a leadership gift from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

College Advising Corps (CAC) addresses the college access challenge by training full-time recent college graduates to supplement school counselors and help students and families break through the financial, social and academic barriers. And it is working!

Student surveys conducted by our Stanford University evaluation team measured the difference made by meeting with one of our college advisers. In terms of college preparation activities, compared to seniors who have not met with the CAC advisers at their schools, students who have met with the Advising Corps advisers are:

  • 107% more likely to take 3 or more ACT/SAT prep courses
  • 98% more likely to attend college workshops
  • 198% more likely to attend financial aid workshops
  • 54% more likely to visit colleges 3 or more times
  • 40% more likely to take the ACT/SAT
  • 62% more likely to submit the FAFSA

With the support of the Kauffman Foundation, the Missouri College Advising Corps (MCAC), which is headquartered at the University of Missouri, serves 41 high schools (14 in Kansas City). MCAC partner schools have increased college matriculation by an average of 8.23 percentage points, as compared to a three-year baseline. Statewide rates have increased by only 1 percent during the same time period. 8,487 MCAC advisees have gone to college. The Kauffman Foundation, in partnership with Kansas State University and CAC, is also supporting the startup of a K-State advising corps which will place its first college advisers in Fall 2016.

And while these results are exciting, we are a double bottom line program. In addition to helping thousands of students enter and complete higher education, we are creating a new generation of diverse, thoughtful leaders. More than two-thirds of the advisers are from underrepresented populations, 62 percent were Pell-eligible themselves while in college and 54 percent were first in their family to graduate from college. This is the passionate, diverse leadership that our country needs to compete in the global economy. They serve with grace and humility while developing the skills to serve families, communities and their country.

Since our launch in 2005, College Advising Corps has grown from 14 recent college graduates serving in one state to 532 graduates serving more than 160,000 students in 14 states across the nation. As we continue to scale, the core of our work remains the same--our students deserve to claim the opportunities they have earned in higher education, our country needs a population that is ready for the 21st century economy and most of all, each of us deserves to reach our promise--to hear “I believe in you.”

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Nicole Farmer Hurd, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of College Advising Corps.  Prior to launching College Advising Corps, Nicole served as an Assistant Dean and Director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of Virginia. Nicole holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, a Master’s degree from Georgetown University, and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame.