MAYODAN — On the labyrinthine path to the American higher education dream, Alex Lucas holds hands and nudges nervous students through the roadblocks.
The 24-year-old graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill works as a college adviser at McMichael High School in rural Rockingham County, where about 70 percent of students are low-income and only a third of graduates ended up at a four-year university last year. Lucas is a one-woman crusader at McMichael, where she goes to any lengths to bombard students with a message that is new to many of them: You can go to college.
She plasters the hallways with student-made posters featuring North Carolina’s public and private colleges. She scribbles a parent’s phone number on her hand so that she can pester a student about a key deadline. Whenever one of her charges receives an acceptance letter, she proudly posts the student’s name and school on a little flag on the window of McMichael’s guidance suite.
On a recent day, she dashed from mock scholarship interviews to test prep sessions, with a running to-do list in her head.
“I need to get these students to believe that getting a college education is worth it to them and that the investment that they have to make – and the time and money – is worth it to them,” she explained. “And then I have to help them achieve it. It’s a two-step process – the believe and then the achieve – that I’m going for.”
Lucas is a trained member of the College Advising Corps, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that placed 375 advisers at high schools in 14 states this year. Modeled on the idea of the Peace Corps or Teach for America, the organization hires recent graduates to work in rural and urban high-need schools, to help qualified students find their way to college. The corps has 24 university partners that contribute funding and advisers.
The nonprofit received national attention in January at a White House summit on higher education affordability and accessibility. On that day, the John M. Belk Endowment of Charlotte announced a three-year, $10 million grant for a big expansion in North Carolina, where there are 31 advisers. Another 60 will be added in the next three years.
The North Carolina university partners are UNC-CH, N.C. State, Davidson College and Duke University, which announced this month that it would join.
Kristy Teskey, executive director of the endowment, said the grant aims to move the dial on college-going in North Carolina’s rural communities.
She quotes a Georgetown University study that indicates that by 2018, 59 percent of jobs in the state will require some form of higher education. Yet the 2010 census showed that only 27 percent of adults in rural communities have a two-year or four-year degree.
“When you’re first generation and no one in your family has gone through the experience and you don’t have a support system of any kind to help with that, it’s these types of programs that can make the difference for large populations,” Teskey said. “By the end of three years, we hope to have touched 54,000 students’ lives in helping them make good decisions around higher education.”
Teskey said the endowment was swayed by data from Stanford University evaluators who have studied the College Advising Corps and found better rates of college acceptance and financial aid applications at schools with advisers – 10 percentage points higher in some cases.
In North Carolina overall, the evaluators found the four-year college enrollment rate was 4.7 percentage points higher at schools with an adviser.
The results were better in rural areas such as Rockingham, where enrollment in four-year colleges was 8.5 percentage points higher, and enrollment at two- or four-year colleges was 10 percentage points higher compared withschools without advisers.
During a three-hour span on a recent day, Lucas reviewed financial aid forms for one student, prepped two anxious seniors for scholarship interviews and tutored three other students on vexing algebra problems for the ACT exam.
In the mock interviews, she tells students to look adults in the eye, shake their hands and dress professionally. Have a résumé in hand, she advises, and watch the posture. Don’t be afraid of selling your accomplishments, she tells them. When students say, “Um” too often, she lets them know.
Anna Waddell, a senior from Stoneville, is nervous about the scholarship and risks being tripped up on the perennial question about strengths and weaknesses.
“You’ve got so many positives, that even when you give a weakness, I want it to be a secret strength,” Lucas tells her. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Waddell leaves the session feeling more confident. She calls herself a first-generation college student, even though her mother attended a community college. Her two older siblings work minimum-wage jobs, which helped spur Waddell’s hunger for a college degree.
She applied to eight colleges and was accepted to all. She’ll attend UNC-CH in the fall. For now, she’s trying to figure out how to afford it. That’s where Lucas comes in. She circulates a list of dozens of scholarships available.
“I’ve always known I wanted to go to college,” Waddell said. “But execution? I didn’t know what to do.”
This year so far, Lucas has given about 70 presentations to students and parents at the school. She is an evangelist for higher education, but her goal is to find the right academic and financial match for students, whether that’s a public two-year school, such as Rockingham Community College or a private four-year such as Wake Forest University. She helps students identify three to five colleges that could be right for them.
Her office is lined with college pennants, just another one of those little messages she puts in front of students.
“Historically this place had a lot of mills and factories to work in, and parents could easily find a job right out of high school,” Lucas said. “So there’s this mentality that a high school education is enough. The problem is we have a mentality that’s shifting and changing much slower than the reality, which is that students now need more specialized education for the workforce.”
A welcomed addition
Advisers in the corps are often mistaken for high-schoolers wandering corridors without a hall pass. But they have by and large been welcomed by school guidance counselors at a time when the counselor-to-student ratio is roughly 400 to 1, said Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of the corps.
“Because those caseloads are so high,” Hurd said, “I think they’re just so happy for the help.”
Advisers receive six weeks of boot camp training. The North Carolina group even took a bus tour of about 20 colleges across the state.
They are called “near peers,” close in age to the high school students and from similar backgrounds.
Of the current advising corps, 69 percent are people of color and 54 percent were first in their families to go to college.
“The beauty of our model is the messenger,” Hurd said. “They understand exactly what the barriers are because frankly most of them have just gone through the barriers themselves. ... The power is, ‘if I can do it, you can do it too.’”
The advisers help promote a college-going culture, lifting what are sometimes low expectations.
The corps started at the University of Virginia in the mid-2000s but shortly thereafter moved its national headquarters to UNC-CH, where Hurd said serving low-income students was in the university’s “DNA.”
It became a separate nonprofit last year but maintains strong ties to the university. Its board chairman is Peter Grauer, Bloomberg chairman and UNC-CH trustee. Other board members include former UNC President Erskine Bowles and former UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp.
Advisers earn $22,000 to $24,000 but are lured by another carrot – nearly $12,000 in loan forgiveness or future education money if they serve two years.
The corps, started with less than $1 million, now has an annual budget of $20 million, including university matching dollars. It aims to put advisers in 1,000 schools in the United States by 2019.
North Carolina will be the major testing ground for scaling up the program and measuring results.
“Our ambition in North Carolina is really to be able to move the state. I think we have room to grow here,” Hurd said. “We can’t afford to have a permanent underclass. We have to make sure all students have opportunities.”