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Jan. 27, 2011 Volume 32, No. 17

MU’s student advising corps is making college a reality for Missourians


College-going rates have increased at 11 high schools

Professional guidance counselors are an endangered species in the United States. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, there is one guidance counselor for every 488 high school students. That means the typical student can expect to spend about 20 minutes a year with a guidance counselor — not nearly enough time for most students as they consider one of the most important decisions of their lives.

Filling that need is where the Missouri College Advising Corps comes in. Now in its third year, MCAC puts recent MU graduates into 11 high schools and three community colleges across Missouri. The advisers are there for one thing, said Beth Tankersley-Bankhead, executive director of the program at MU: “100 percent of their time is devoted to getting students to go to college.”

Nearly 23,000 students were advised, in group and one-on-one sessions, in the first two years of the program. This year, advisers are on track to hold more than 30,000 sessions, helping students with enrollment and financial aid applications, as well as ACT test preparation. Advisers also conduct group financial aid and general information sessions for families. The program has secured some $2.7 million in scholarship aid for Missouri high school students going to college.

All of the high schools in the program have seen an increase in college-going graduates. After two years with MCAC advisers, students from Van Horn High School who went on to college increased 12.1 percent. At Salem High School, in rural Missouri, the increase was 8.9 percent after one year. Other schools, in both rural and urban settings, saw increases in college-going students of 1 percent to 6 percent.

Using a “near-peer” model, MCAC advisers assist low-income, first generation and underrepresented minorities in finding their way to college. Of the students who receive MCAC services, 80 percent are ethnic minorities, 69 percent are first-generation college students and 73 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

The work is hard, yet rewarding, said adviser Cherelle Washington. “What is so appealing about MCAC is that it provides services I wish I had when I was in high school,” she said. “I feel like my transition from high school to college could have gone a little smoother with some help from someone who had just gone through the process; our near- peer model does just that.”

It is a mission the advisers seem to take to heart: 99 percent of departing staff intend to enroll in graduate school, said Tankersley-Bankhead. It helps that part of the advisers total compensation of about $28,000 a year includes an educational award of $5,350 to pay for outstanding student loans or graduate school tuition.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 59 percent of Missouri jobs will require some postsecondary education by 2010. However, less than 35 percent of the state’s residents have college degrees; in more than half of Missouri counties, less than 12 percent of adults have a four-year degree.

The college advising corps will likely be an integral to the success of  “Missouri Promise,” the statewide initiative of making college education a reality for more Missourians. Gov. Jay Nixon hopes to increase the number of residents holding college degrees from 37 percent to 60 percent in the next 10 years.

One of MCAC’s most important contributions to the effort will be helping high school students overcome social and cultural barriers that prevent many of them from even considering college. “A lot of times what our advisers are overcoming are the students self-perceptions,” Tankersley-Bankhead said. “Some have been told growing up, that they’re not capable of going to college.”

With funding coming in from private and public sectors, MCAC’s future, at least in the short term, is secure. This is good news for Missouri students, some of whom have written letters in support of the program to help secure additional funding.

Chelsea Flowers, a student at Salem High School, understood the importance of what she heard from her adviser, Alex Withrow: “Miss Alex’s main goal was to get us to understand that college is no joke … I truly think this opportunity prepared me, along with my fellow classmates, for our futures.”

— Robert Johnson