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Nicole Hurd: The TT Interview

The founder of the National College Advising Corps on why she believes her program will increase the number of high school graduates going to college — and ease the state's gaping school counselor shortage.

Nicole Hurd, founder and Executive Director of the National College Advising Corps.

There is an average of one college counselor for every 450 high school students in Texas. Some campuses — 748 of them, according to the Legislative Budget Board — have no counselor at all. The students who suffer most from the shortage are often the most disadvantaged and the ones already least likely to go to college. The National College Advising Corps is out to change that, and statistics show its program is working.

The program, which University of North Carolina professor Nicole Hurd began in 2005, has just concluded its inaugural year in Texas. This year, it will place 120 recent graduates of four partnering universities — the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Christian University and Trinity University — as college advisers in high schools across the state. Hurd hopes the program, which grew from just 15 advisers last year, will be able to replicate the success it’s had in other states, where schools have seen an eight to 12 percent increase in high school graduates going onto college.

On Monday, she talked with the Tribune by phone. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

The Advising Corps has been explained as a Teach for America for college counselors. Did you set out to follow the TFA model?

The way this program came really about was that we saw the numbers … that at the time 79 percent of Virginians were graduating from high school but only 53 percent were going to college, and like Texas, the counselor-student ratio was high, and the idea was that we’re sending all these great students off to Teach for America and they can go teach … why can’t they go ahead and do college advisement? Who better to get someone excited than somebody who’s been filling out the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid application] for the last four years? Who better than someone who’s been applying to college in the recent past and has friends and brothers and sisters and others who have been going through the process? I think there’s something very powerful in the Teach for America model … and part of that is harnessing young people into schools so they can be role models, so they can help teachers, so they can help counselors, and they can help parents.

Describe a little more what corps members do when they are placed on campuses.

The idea is to go into schools where there is an interest in us being there, where the counselor ratios might be high. All the research shows that teachers are involved, parents are involved, and that peers are involved, so we’re an add-on, we’re a supplement to a school. … We don’t ask our districts or schools to contribute; this is all money coming from either the Challenge Grant that the [higher education] coordinating board in Texas has designated to the advising corps, or from private funders. It’s really exciting that we can go and serve schools, and we can add on to the capacity of schools, and not drain any resource from a school.

With most of your funding coming from federal and state grants and private donors, how have the deep cuts to public education budgets statewide affected your operations?

The whole idea is to harness this patchwork quilt of resources that would really say, we so care about the youth in our state that we’re going to fund these advisers to make sure every young person that they have the opportunity to go to college. We know this is a tough time in Texas and for a lot of our school systems in taking these cuts, and we want to be a program that says we’re here, and we’re here without cost to the school system.

How do you pick the schools you work with?

One of the statistics that makes me shudder is in our country that if you are a high-achieving, low-income student, your chances of going to and completing college are the same as a low-achieving, high-income student. So even though a low-income student might have done everything right, might have all grades, and the testing, has lined this up perfectly, they aren’t going in the numbers they should be going. We’re really looking at numbers of low-income students, number of first-generation students, and number of students that have been underrepresented in higher education. And we’re also looking for good partners. Part of it is really to be able to hold hands with the principal, and with teachers, and the guidance counselors and do this work together. So we’re looking at schools that are willing to share resources, and share data, and work together so that we can come up with a strategic plan for the school and move the needle together.

You mentioned that the corps is about using recent graduates who have navigated the college application process themselves — but how do you train them to serve your target population?

[We want to] give them as many tools on both the admissions and financial aid side so that they know exactly how to reach students. We talk a lot about best fit schools, finding schools that will serve them really well and where they can get to graduations; on the financial aid side we talk about FAFSA completion and how to get students and their parents to fill out these forms, and best practices in getting those forms filled out. But the best part about training is that they also go to multiple other universities and colleges, whether they are two year or four year, around Texas so that they can really talk to young people about as many possibilities. … The idea is that yes, while I may be a graduate of UT-Austin, Texas A&M, or TCU, or Trinity, when I work with a student that might need to go to a community college, I need to know which community colleges in the area and are going to serve my students best.

State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, is a member of your advisory board. He had several bills this session that focused on counseling in Texas, including one that would require state certification to address the admissions and financial aid process. How involved does the corps get in policy matters?

We aren’t directly involved in policy, but we do get excited when someone like Rep. Castro shows leadership on this issue. One of the things that caused the creation of the advising corps is that we don’t have a lot of college access and success curriculum in our education schools. Our counselors and our teachers are asked to help move students to college, but very few of our education schools actually teach in their curriculum financial aid and admissions advising. … This is a chance for schools of education to think about how to get that infused into their curriculum so that our people that are going into education leadership have that in their graduate studies.

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