Overcoming Micro-Barriers and Quoting Galaxy Quest: One Counselor’s Approach to Getting All His Students to College

Student Services Team Lead shares his approach for making sure a college education is in reach for all his students

All Access: We know the college planning process can be daunting, even for the most well-resourced students. What makes it particularly challenging for your low-income students?

Keith Hebert: My low-income kids are often overwhelmed and lost in the process before they get to me. Some have nearly given up any idea of leaving home for college because of how much information they have to assimilate. Most of my low-income students’ parents did not go to college; most of the time, these students do not have a resource at home to guide them through the process and the parents rely on the schools to do all the heavy lifting. I do my best to help my students through workshops and check-ins and events—anything I can do to get as much information to them in small doses.

But what really stops them dead in their tracks are all the micro-barriers along the way that well-resourced students seem to have the toolkit to get through. Micro-barriers are just accepted, embedded parts of the process; I don’t always know if people recognize how they are viewed differently from people in lower-income brackets. College application fees prohibit students from trying to apply to certain schools. Financial aid applications use languages that may not be easily understood by students and the processes can often span months. Interviews happen, but students don’t always know the right things to say or do, or who to ask favors from. These are all things that are common in the college process but are seen through a different lens for a low-income and first-generation college student. These micro-barriers are magnified for these kids and instead of being a speed bump, they can be a brick wall.

AA: Talk about an experience where these micro-barriers have impacted your students.

KH: Here’s one example that I experienced recently. I was meeting with one of my Top 10 students to go through her CSS Profile and double check everything was in place (two micro-barriers here—both the completion of the Profile, but also her parents not speaking English well enough to understand the form). With all her documents ready, we were able to answer the questions on the CSS Profile with no major stumble. We hit submit and did a celebratory dance in my office. A couple of minutes later, I looked back at the screen and noticed there were only 8 schools, whereas 10 of her applied to schools required the CSS Profile. When I asked her about this, she mentioned the current policy that the CollegeBoard can only waive up to 8 schools based on income. At $16 per school, she decided that the last two did not warrant an extra $32.

To many families, $32 is a drop in the bucket and seen as what it is—an investment. But acceptance to these schools is not guaranteed and students and their families sometimes view this fee as a waste if they don’t get in. The backstory of this student’s family is that they are undergoing significant financial strain and her home was being foreclosed on. She had already picked up a second job to help out the family and $32 meant groceries for her brothers, or gas for the car, or literally anything but application fees.

So $32 potentially would have prevented this student from accessing the need-based aid that these two schools could provide her if she were accepted. She had already done the applications, and the essays, and the interviews. She had already built a marvelous high school transcript and activity list. She’s a wonderful kid with a bright future. But right at the end of the road, this micro-barrier was the one that slowed her to a stop for these two schools.

So I paid it. And it was amazing to be able to do that for her. And her reaction when she received the confirmation email was priceless—that’s joy I could never buy for myself through things. I consider it the best $32 I’ve ever spent.

AA: How do you and your colleagues (both at your own school, CBOs, or other organizations) collaborate around ensuring these students get what they need to succeed?

KH: I feel like this conversation happens all the time and is constantly ongoing with my colleagues. In Chicago alone, there are dozens of CBOs that work specifically with low-income students to help expose them to the idea of college accessibility.

The problem is, there just isn’t enough personnel to catch everyone at every step and some people that do work with students don’t have an adequate knowledge base or experience. I’ve accepted that as part of the system, but it doesn’t mean we all don’t work every day to make things a little better.

Most of the time, the collaboration always seems to hinge on the idea as simple as sharing best practices amongst each other—which also comes with a caveat. That is, if I reveal my best practices, it removes the competitive advantage that I could provide to my students. This doesn’t stop me from helping out my colleagues, but it does make me pause sometimes and think if I’m doing my own students a disservice.

The rest of collaboration is sharing any and all resources, curriculum, presentation slides, and contacts. The counseling staff at Monson High School in Massachusetts sent me their entire 9-12 curriculum for college and career. This alone saved me years of development. I’m hoping one day I can repay the favor.

AA: The College Board has recently announced actions to reduce the impact of these micro-barriers for low-income student so they can more easily apply to and get into college—like introducing unlimited score sends and Profile fee waivers for low-income students. What more could organizations like the College Board do? What would make the biggest impact for your students?

KH: That was such a weird and wonderful day for me. I had to read the announcement a half a dozen times before I really understood what was happening. I’ve done this work for so long and cringed every year when I would see fees for score sends and profile waivers stopping so many students from applying to highly selective college. And this email single handedly wiped all of that away starting in 2018-19.

This was such an enormous stride towards college equity and accessibility for my low-income kids. My plans as the senior counselor have drastically changed for the 2018-19 school year knowing that the yoke of fees is not going to slow down some students—they aren’t going to have to choose just four to eight schools that they get for free to send official scores. If they want to apply to ten or eleven, they can without the financial micro-barrier.

The College Board, Hobsons, Naviance, the Common Application, ACT, Inc.®—these organizations just need to keep the conversation going and consider what can be done while still maintaining the quality of their products. I understand that they have to make a profit to continue operations, but with that they should always be talking with the counselors on the ground about what is going on.

For the College Board specifically, increasing access to the SAT tests in rural areas and opening up additional testing centers would be critical for these students.

It would also be great to have a central place where counselors can track their students’ progress in filling out financial aid applications.

In my dream of dreams, I really want everything to be combined in one universal application so that students apply to the colleges, complete any financial aid documents, send their official scores, send their transcripts…send everything through one platform and receive messages all through one platform.

AA: What is the piece of advice you give most often to your students to help them through the college planning process?

KH: I hold a rally with all the seniors at the beginning of the year. The final motivating speech I give them holds a relatively simple question:

What if you get in?

I repeat this to them often. Seniors will come to me all the time about the admissions requirements to get into colleges. What GPA do they require? What SAT score do they need? This school has a 13% acceptance rate, do I have a chance?

Hey, could you see yourself being successful there? Yes? Great, what if you apply and get in?

It works every time. I don’t believe we should ever be messaging to students that kids from our school don’t go to schools like those – it is not our job to crush the hopes of students no matter our personal opinion. We should be helping them explore their options and helping match who they are to the skills necessary to succeed at any institution.

The second piece I give to them is my rallying cry throughout their senior year and I’m going to expose my inner-geek here, but I quote to them from the movie Galaxy Quest all the time: Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

Like I said—inner geek.

AA: What piece of advice would you have for your fellow counselors who are working through similar challenges with their students?

KH: To them the same as my students: Never Give up, Never Surrender!

But also, find a network. Join your local college admissions counselors association and make contact with other people. Email other schools and offer to host a coffee and cake think session. Google Hangouts is a wonderful resource to have meetings without leaving your office.

Also, I’m a member of both NACAC and IACAC and very much value the ability to just send a mass email to people and get some answers, but also to be able to answer thoughts and questions emailed to me. It’s empowering.

And lastly, our collective voice is power. I did not really appreciate the power of my professional voice until this past September when I went to the NACAC national conference and started to hear from other professionals who thought similar to myself. When I started a dialogue with people, the conversation never ended with a shrug and a “Oh well, what can you do?” These people were serious, which made me more serious. I’ve been riding that tidal wave ever since.