Episode 64: Volunteers To Help in College Applications Process

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This is our tenth episode focusing on news stories about higher education. When we started this series about what’s going on in the news, I really didn’t know if there would be enough to talk about. It turns out there has been quite a lot!

Today’s story is equally for families with kids going into their final year or two of high school and for families with kids going into their final year of community college—that is, families with kids who might be facing the process of applying to a four-year college in the near future.

1. The Problem with Completing College Applications

In a February 8 online article in The Hechinger Report, entitled “Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools,” Hechinger senior editor Barbara Kantrowitz writes about an idea that comes to you from Karen Dubinsky, the chief engagement officer at LaGuardia Community College (located in Long Island City, Queens), one of the seven community colleges of the City University of New York. Dubinsky’s idea is something that should be replicated in every high school and every community college immediately.

We are not kidding. I can’t believe more high schools and community colleges do not do this one simple, but likely highly effective, thing to help kids navigate the college application process and get into college: Enlist volunteers from among the parents of kids who have recently helped their own kids through the college application process and who might want to lend a hand to a younger student.

The article quotes Dubinsky’s description of LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms as “women in New York who have spent a lot of time and energy getting their kids into college.” In point of fact, the women are Dubinsky’s friends, whom she recruited to start Pushy Moms (originally and more boringly called the College Advisory Board).

These women don’t work miracles, and they don’t have friends in high places in prestigious four-year universities. What they do have is experience, a certain amount of kindheartedness, and undoubtedly empathy for kids and parents struggling through the process.

Just to get some perspective, LaGuardia CC has tens of thousands of students (actually 48,000 students from 150 countries), and many are trying to make the transition from two-year LaGuardia to a four-year college when they graduate. Many of LaGuardia’s students—especially those who have come by themselves from all over the world—don’t have nearby parents or other family members to help them figure out the next step in their education, and many of them can’t afford to pay someone to provide that help. My guess is that the college counselors employed by LaGuardia CC are about as overwhelmed as high school counselors in big cities are. Providing one-to-one college counseling for every LaGuardia student who needs it just isn’t going to happen.

2. The Statistics About Completing College

Couple that situation with this fact, as noted in The Hechinger Report article:   “According to a recent report from Teachers College, Columbia University, 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get the degree” (quoted from the article). These statistics are astounding. Let’s just say it again: 80 percent of two-year college students say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college, only about 25 percent actually transfer to a four-year college so that they can do that, and only 17 percent finally get the degree that they transferred for.

Parents, we know that we have said that starting out in a community college might be just the right thing for a variety of students—students who have no idea what they want to study in college, students who need to improve their basic academic and study skills, students who need to get better grades on their record before they apply to a four-year college, students who need to mature a bit before committing to a four-year program of study, and students whose families want or need the financial break of far cheaper tuition than four-year colleges.   We have said this and more in many episodes of NYCollegeChat and in our new book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available electronically and in print from Amazon). We have praised community colleges for lots of things, including the fact that adults over 25, some of whom are returning to finish a college degree they started years before, can often find a truly good fit at a community college.

But looking at these numbers—from 80 to 25 to17 percent—I have to say that I am beginning to think twice. It is true that there are legitimate reasons for this decline between the declared intentions of newly admitted students and the realities of where they end up. Because many community college students are older than typical college freshmen, it is likely that adult responsibilities get in the way—part-time and even full-time jobs, spouses, and children. It is also true that some students who try a community college right out of high school do so as a last resort—that is, their grades or test scores wouldn’t get them into a four-year college, even a less-selective public one. Such students might have trouble all the way through their community college careers.

I am not faulting community colleges here. I believe they serve an important purpose for a significant percentage of graduating high school students, especially for students who need a little extra time to become fully college ready or who need to keep costs for the first two years of college low enough that they can actually finish. But numbers are numbers, unfortunately, and these should make any educator or parent think again.

Just to be balanced, you might recall that we offered some different, but equally disturbing, statistics in our last episode (Episode 63: College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority). We noted that graduation rates from four-year colleges were so bad that the Obama administration has pledged to spend the next year trying to figure out what has been going wrong. In a recent U.S. News & World Report article (“Education Department to Prioritize College Completion,” January 21, 2016), reporter Lauren Camera quoted statistics from 2013 from the National Center for Education Statistics. She reported that only 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. Not four years, but six years. That’s first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program—in other words, these are the kids just coming out of high school and starting college full time in a bachelor’s degree program. These are kids like your teenager. After the community college numbers we just talked about, this 59 percent figure is really no consolation.

3. One Solution to the College Applications Problem

But let’s get back to LaGuardia CC’s Pushy Moms. One of Dubinsky’s solutions to the precipitous drop between the 80 percent of two-year college students who say that they want to get a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college and the approximately 25 percent who actually transfer to a four-year college is Pushy Moms.   Pushy Moms solves the problem of students who want to transfer to a four-year college, but cannot figure out how to negotiate the application process—which, by the way, is likely to be far more demanding than the application it took for them to get into LaGuardia as a public community college.

What exactly do the Pushy Moms do? Well, they do what moms do. They talk with LaGuardia students individually and over time about which four-year public and private colleges to apply to, about which colleges have the student’s desired major, about how to visit those colleges, about how to write any essays that might be required (and about how to revise and improve those essays, I’m sure), about any admissions tests that have to be taken, and about how to stay on schedule in getting transfer applications completed and submitted on time.

The Pushy Moms aren’t meant to replace the college counselors at LaGuardia, but I bet they often do. That’s how great the need for this kind of support is. The statistics are proof of that.

4. Next Steps

So, if you have a kid at a community college right now and want to see him or her make that transfer to a four-year college and you both need some help in order to make that happen, see whether the community college has a support service like Pushy Moms. Maybe you will be lucky.

But, what does Pushy Moms have to do with high schools? Simply this: There are a lot of pushy moms and dads (they can be pushy, too) who have helped navigate the college application process for their own kids in the past few years. Some of them have younger kids at home, who still need their help. But others don’t. The ones who don’t might have a little free time and might actually miss interacting with high school kids (yes, some are glad they are gone, but others of us wish they were still around).

These moms and dads could make up an effective volunteer corps to help students applying to colleges from your teenager’s high school—where they already know the principal and the teachers and the counselors and even perhaps some of the younger kids. I can already see this idea playing out in suburban high schools all over the country, especially in those suburbs where high school graduates go off to college and come back to live and raise their own families.

Of course, these moms and dads could also offer their services to schools that really need them, especially some urban high schools full of potential first-generation college students, who lack the family resources and family background necessary to put together winning college applications. As we all know, these urban high schools rarely have the number of counselors that would be needed to support all of the students who need help.

That is really the reason that Marie and I started this podcast. We were trying to make up for a lack of school counselors, and I was a mom who had recently gotten three kids of my own through undergraduate and graduate school admissions processes. Marie and I had also gotten a couple hundred high schoolers through the application process as they graduated from the Early College high school we co-founded in New York City. We knew how daunting it could be for families without any experience of their own in navigating college waters.

I recently wrote about this same topic on my blog for parents, called ParentChat with Regina. At the end of my ParentChat articles, I usually give parents some “marching orders,” which usually involve going to talk to the school board and/or their child’s school principal about current practices in the school district and the schools and possibly improved future practices. Here is what I said about the Pushy Moms topic.

High school parents: It is time to take a look at how parent volunteers are used in the college application process in your high school:

Ask your school board to talk about whether it has a policy on using parent volunteers in this particular way in your high school. Most boards will have a policy on volunteers, but this is a specific case, which could be endorsed in such a policy.

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity first to meet with the superintendent, high school principals, and counseling staff about current practice and about the desirability of adding this practice.

In addition, talk to your high school principal about starting a parent volunteer group like Pushy Moms. You don’t need to have a board policy to do it. It could be a project of your PTA, if you have a strong PTA, or it could be set up and run by your high school administrators or counselors.

Offer to help by recruiting parents of current students you know. Or offer to call parents of recent graduates to recruit them (teachers and counselors can probably point you to parents who did a good job for their own kids in the college applications process). Offer to help with the logistics of scheduling meetings between parent volunteers and seniors (meetings can be held in school facilities or, as with Pushy Moms, at local coffee shops and other public venues).

Stay focused in pulling this off in your high school. This is an idea with no downside.

As Marie and I often say, it is rare to find an idea in education that has no downside. We think that Pushy Moms—or Pushy Moms and Dads—is one. Don’t miss it.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Making a community college experience more like a four-year college experience
  • Considering the case of Guttmann Community College
  • Enlisting the help of PTA members who no longer have kids in K–12 schools

Check out these higher education institutions we mention…

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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
  • Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

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Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.