If any of the 1,600 students at Milby High School had a question about college applications last year, they had no official adviser to ask.
In fact, that was the case at half the high schools in the Houston Independent School District.
The lack of advising spurred the district to secure a $3 million grant and hire and train a new advising corps this year, pushing one semester’s college application rate to outpace last year’s final rate.
“The program so far is making a pretty significant difference,” said Ruth Lopez Turley, a professor at Rice University and director of the Houston Education Research Consortium.
“I have to admit that this increase in the percentage of student applying to college is a bit higher than I anticipated. So I’m quite optimistic.”
Take Milby High School again. Last year college advising was informal at the historic East End campus. Barely half of the seniors submitted applications. Now there’s a full time adviser on campus, who’s trained in navigating the process and working with families. Already, by January this year, the application rate has grown to 67 percent.
The new advising corps isn’t just holding office hours and waiting for students to ask questions.
“We strategically set out to actually go and reach them,” said Jeremy Tatum, director of college success at HISD. “To pull them into our offices, to say you’re a student who I’m going to work with your teacher, I’m going to have you come and spend a whole period to talk about college, rather than wait for you to come down there.”
HISD hired and trained 28 dedicated college advisers last year with a $3 million dollar grant from the Houston Endowment.
Now every high school in HISD has at least one adviser. They’re armed with target lists of students who have the grades and the SAT scores to go to college, but attend schools where graduates usually skip higher education.
*applications on Apply Texas, the common application for state public universities, and some private ones
Lopez Turley said that across HISD, the early numbers have already outpaced last year’s. So far, the rate has jumped the most for Hispanic students – by 19 percentage points. And more seniors are considering four-year universities instead of community colleges.
She added that the initiative has some early lessons for other districts.
“One dedicated college adviser can make a huge difference, literally change someone’s life. Remember these are students, for many of them, if they don’t have access to this information at their school, they don’t have access to this information — period,” she said.
Applications are just the first step. HISD has big goals to meet. It also wants to boost how many students attend and complete college by 20 percent.
“This is one big step towards that,” said Rick Cruz, major projects officer at HISD. “If our kids aren’t even applying, and we know historically they haven’t, if we’re seeing a lot more kids applying to colleges, and seeing colleges that are the right fit for them, that indicates to us that we are on the right track to meeting our goal of ensuring our kids all have a shot at going to college and are well equipped to graduate from college.”