"A lot of students really do not understand the process and what it takes and all the things that can go wrong, especially financial aid," Brown said, adding that it's particularly unfamiliar territory for many lower-income students. "That one-on-one connection that you can have with your adviser who knows your personal situation … they made you feel so welcome."
A local nonprofit wants all Atlanta Public Schools students to continue their education after high school and is trying to remove the big obstacles to completing a two- or four- year college degree or technical program.
Achieve Atlanta offers scholarship money and advising to help Atlanta students such as Brown conquer the college-admissions maze and pay for college.
Since launching in 2015 with a $20 million grant from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, Achieve Atlanta has awarded nearly $11 million in need-based scholarships, starting with the class of 2016.
Each year, the number of Achieve Atlanta scholarship recipients has increased, from 586 students that first year to 840 students from the class of 2018, roughly a third of all APS graduates.
There are other promising signs: The number of students seamlessly enrolling in college after high school graduation has increased from 51 percent the year before Achieve Atlanta started its work to 60 percent for the class of 2017, the most recent data available.
The group will continue to offer scholarships for as long as possible while pushing the state to fully fund need-based financial aid for college students, said Tina Fernandez, Achieve Atlanta’s executive director.
Leaders were motivated by a dismal statistic when they began the work several years ago. At the time, roughly half of APS students graduated from high school and only about a quarter of them were projected to earn a post-secondary degree within six years of their high school graduation.
That left far too many young people unqualified for the growing percentage of jobs that require education or training beyond high school.
“What we’ve seen is — this is not a surprise — is that kids want to go to college. Their parents want to them to go to college,” Fernandez said.
But scores of hurdles — deadlines, tests, applications, transportation — and thousands of dollars in college tuition and fees block their way. Those challenges can be especially difficult to surmount for poor students and those who are the first in their family to navigate the complex college-admissions process.
Among that first class of scholarship recipients, 81 percent continued their post-secondary studies into at least a second year. The organization continues to collect data to track their progress and provide coaching and advising services while they are in college.
More students are filling out at least three college applications — two-thirds of Atlanta seniors did so in 2018, up from less than half in 2016.
Thousands of parents participated in a text-messaging program designed to help advisers share deadlines and other critical college information. This past summer, advisers sent more than 38,000 texts to recent high school graduates to make sure they completed the last-minute tasks that can derail students from starting college in the fall.
Key to the work is a cadre of more than two dozen college advisers assigned to Atlanta high schools who lighten the load of school counselors. An adviser’s job is more limited than a counselor, which requires more credentials and involves tending to a host of social, emotional, and academic student needs.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Achieve Atlanta pays for the advisers through the College Advising Corps, a nonprofit organization that trains and places new college graduates in high schools across the country. They work full-time, preferably for two years, and focus on helping seniors apply and go to college. The advisers serve all Atlanta students, regardless of family income.
The extra hands have allowed APS to pay more attention to individual students. There are about 225 students for every counselor working in Atlanta high schools, including a couple of charter schools. But with the addition of Achieve Atlanta-sponsored advisers, that ratio drops to 152 students for every counselor and adviser, according to APS.
The national average for K-12 schools is one counselor for every 464 students, and Georgia’s average student load per counselor is slightly higher. The recommended ratio is one for every 250 students, said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.
Having more experts is beneficial especially in high schools with many poor students and students whose family members have never applied to college. Research shows that high school graduates from low- and middle-income families are less likely to enroll in college than those from wealthy families.
“If we don’t do it, no one else is because we are really sometimes all the students have,” said Kasha Heath, a counselor at Washington High School, where they start talking about college in the ninth grade.
The school’s transient population — it’s not unusual for students to attend three or more schools during their high school years — and problems that accompany poverty and homelessness make it hard for some students to think about their futures.
“There’s a lot of barriers and challenges that unfortunately impede some of that conversation because we are kind of worried about where they’re going to sleep tonight,” Heath said.
Washington counselors work closely with the college advisers hired through Achieve Atlanta, said counselor Erica Clark.
The high school organizes college tours to take students outside of I-285. Without that, some students would never step onto a campus or see a professor, counselors said.
Gustavo Rivera, a Washington High School senior, started thinking seriously last year about college. He would be the first in his family to go, and he said nobody at home can assist him with the numerous application and enrollment steps. He stops by to check in with the counselors several times a week.
“I just don’t want to follow the family. I wanted to be different. I want to be the one that went to college,” he said.
His classmate, Montavious Griffin, said counselors and advisers helped him narrow down a list of colleges to those that would be a good fit, provided scholarship information, and gave him details about fee waivers for tests he needs to take.
His mom has told him he needs to find a way to provide for himself, and college has been his longtime goal. He said he grew up in an environment that made him realize the importance of having a plan so that he doesn’t have to “worry about the next day and what might happen.”
The College Advising Corps had just a handful of advisers in Atlanta high schools before Achieve Atlanta picked up the cost of those advisers and provided financial support to add about 20 more.
The advisers use their closeness in age to students and common backgrounds to gain the trust of students and parents.
“There is an acceptance and a kinship that happens because the students recognize, ‘You really get me,’ ” said Yarbrah Peeples, the corps’ regional director.
Glenda Dowdy, an adviser since 2017 at Mays High School, said one of the biggest challenges is making students aware of the possibilities within their reach: “They don’t see their full potential. Sometimes we have to show them.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The advisers do that through a series of one-on-one meetings with students to discuss their plans after high school. They make sure they’ve registered for college-entrance tests, review financial aid, and help them sift through potential colleges, apply, and choose the right one.
Jennifer Harris, another adviser at Mays, said they urge students to apply to three to seven schools so they have plenty of options.
Alysia Brown was pleased with the help advisers offered her son, Governor. Her daughter attended a private Atlanta high school on a scholarship, and she worried her son wouldn’t have access to the same level of college advising.
“I was very concerned about the disparity,” she said.
But that melted away once he connected with the advisers at Mays.
“I was really pleased that they were bringing these kinds of resources to students,” she said. “This allowed him to take ownership himself of the process, and that’s really critical.”
About Achieve Atlanta scholarships
Who’s eligible: Graduates of Atlanta Public Schools, including APS charter schools
First class to get scholarships: 2016
Number of 2018 recipients: 840
Scholarship for four-year colleges: $5,000 a year for up to four years
Scholarship for two-year colleges, technical programs: $1,500 a year for up to two years
Where recipients enroll: 76 percent at four-year colleges, 21 percent at two-year colleges, 3 percent in technical programs.
Where they go to school: 85 percent remain in Georgia
Academic eligibility for four-year scholarship: At least a 2.5 grade point average
Academic eligibility for two-year scholarship: At least a 2.0 grade point average
Income eligibility: Using federal financial aid guidelines, students are eligible for the scholarship if the estimated amount their family can contribute to their college costs is between $0 and $8,000. That calculation depends on factors such as income, household size and the number of family members in college. At the high end of income eligibility, Achieve Atlanta has awarded scholarships to students whose families have adjusted gross incomes in the $60,000-to-$80,000 range.