How to get a million low-income students to college? This organization has a plan.

Alex Lucas, a college adviser at a high school in Mayodan, gets ready for an ACT Prep session in 2014.
Alex Lucas, a college adviser at a high school in Mayodan, gets ready for an ACT Prep session in 2014. file photo

Toward its goal of enrolling one million low-income students in college by 2025, the Chapel Hill-based College Advising Corps has received a $20 million gift from a former Microsoft executive.

The donation, from Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie, is the kickoff for a fundraising campaign to further the work of the College Advising Corps.

In the last decade, the organization estimates that it has helped more than 300,000 first-generation and underrepresented students go to college. In partnership with 24 universities, the corps hires college graduates to work in urban and rural high schools to advise students along the path to higher education. This year, the corps has 654 advisers serving in high schools across 14 states, plus 32 who are virtual advisers.

The organization has a significant presence in North Carolina, where its partners are Davidson College, Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Advisers help students identify and apply to colleges, fill out federal financial aid forms and prepare for college entrance exams. They supplement the work of a school's guidance counselors, who are frequently overwhelmed with large numbers of students. In North Carolina, the student-to-counselor ratio was 378 to one in 2014-15.

Nicole Hurd, founder and chief executive officer of the College Advising Corps, said in an interview the Ballmer gift gives the organization a runway to dream big.

"What it allows us to do is really be bold," she said. "A bold gift attracts bold goals, and a bold goal attracted a bold gift, so it was a really nice coming together of our vision and their vision."

She said the corps will nearly double in the number of advisers. The expansion is not only about extending the advising work to other states, Hurd said, but about zeroing in on what techniques work the best. The corps, with a $40 million annual budget, has research under way to identify the most successful advising practices.

For example, advisers are finding that engaging with parents is a key part of the equation. In Atlanta, advisers started a program to text parents and saw a 7 percent increase in completion of federal financial aid forms for students.

"If we're going to move the needle for a million young people, then we're going to have to think differently about how we approach parents," Hurd said.

Low-income and underrepresented students face obstacles when it comes to navigating the college application process, but with more one-on-one help from an adviser, their odds increase.

"A college education does more to boost economic mobility than perhaps any other step a young person can take," Connie Ballmer said in a news release. "When I speak with college-bound students who had previously never dreamed of going, I am so inspired by their sense of hope and possibility."