Va. Grants Aim to Reduce Financial Barriers to College

Rosalind S. Helderman
December 10, 2004

When Sam White enrolled at the University of Virginia last year, he became the first student from his southwest Virginia high school to attend the elite institution in at least 30 years.

White, 20, a sophomore from Castlewood, thinks it didn't have to be that way. Plenty of students at his high school were qualified, he said, if they had believed college was an option -- and had known how to pay for it. "I had the feeling that there were people who were not reaching their whole potential," he said.

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Educators say many low-income students who succeed in high school never make it to college, barred by low expectations and fears of the cost. To combat the problem, the Loudoun-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announced yesterday that it will award nearly $1 million to set up college access programs across Virginia. The $500 million foundation was formed from the estate of the late Washington Redskins owner and gives money to high-achieving students in financial need.

The awards, $966,613 in all, include money for scholarship organizations in Alexandria and Fairfax.

The largest portion, $623,000, will be spent over two years to train University of Virginia seniors to become college advisers at low-income high schools after they graduate, guiding students through the application and financial aid processes. The first 20 seniors will be hired in the spring.

High school guidance counselors in Virginia work with an average of 369 students each, and their job description is expansive, including course selection, behavioral counseling and organizing state standardized testing.

As a result, students who don't get college information from family members and can't afford to hire help often flounder, particularly in navigating the complex and changing world of financial aid, said Joshua S. Wyner, the foundation's vice president for programs.

"The ones who need the information the most get the information the least," he said.

Recent research has shown that each year, 150,000 students nationwide are in the top 25 percent of students academically but the bottom 25 percent in terms of family income, said Anthony P. Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, an education think tank. Only 44 percent of them attend a four-year college. In comparison, 94 percent of top students who are also in the top 25 percent in terms of income do so.

"That's pretty striking," Carnevale said. "Higher education in America is very quickly becoming an elite institution, and that has consequences."

The college guides hired at U-Va. will be trained next summer in the college application process before they go to work in low-income high schools across the state. Like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps members, the guides will receive living expenses and will be required to make a one- or two-year commitment to serve.

"We're looking for people who are committed to helping other students achieve what they've achieved," Associate Dean Nicole Farmer Hurd said.

The foundation also awarded grants to six local programs, modeled in part on the District of Columbia College Access Program, charged with raising money to support college counseling and scholarships in their school districts. The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria, a 19-year-old organization that gave college money last year to 198 county seniors, received $25,000 to conduct a study of its past recipients.

The new Fairfax Scholarship Fund received $90,000 to jump-start its efforts. The group hopes to place counselors in seven Fairfax high schools starting this year and award its first 13 scholarships in the spring. The group is led by well-known residents, including School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock), former board member Christian N. Braunlich and former state secretary of education James W. Dyke Jr.

Despite the county's relative affluence, thousands of students could benefit from the program, including 30,000 students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, a common indicator of poverty, Wilson said.

"Demographics in Fairfax have changed so much, and there's a growing perception that there's a population in need," she said.

The Fairfax organization, incorporated in August, has been fundraising aggressively, and Braunlich said the hefty support from the Jack Kent Cooke foundation is the equivalent of "an early investment in the Apple Corporation" that will encourage others to get involved.

The group, he said, could help close the achievement gap between poor high school students and those who are better off, as well as disparities between minorities and white students. "I suspect there are kids who don't achieve because they think they can't go to college," he said.

White sponsored a U-Va. student council resolution this week in support of the new college advising program. He said that when he graduates in two years, he might apply to become one of guides himself and help kids like those he knew in high school.

"There just needs to be encouragement to reach untapped potential," he said.