Coaching for College

Advise TX Prepares Grads to Nudge More Kids Toward Higher Ed.

Photo by Michael O'Brien

Owen O’Brien heard it so often from the high school students she was advising that they seemed to be reading from a script: “Community college is the smartest thing to do.”

Two-year colleges can be valuable, of course, but O’Brien knew that for the inner-city kids she was advising, the successful rate of transferring to (and graduating from) a four-year institution was less than 10 percent.

O’Brien, BA ’10, is only 23 herself. Despite—or perhaps because of—her youth, her hundreds of advisees at Houston’s Barbara Jordan High School this year have listened when she has encouraged them to reach higher.

“Because this is a magnet school, many want to be engineers, pharmacists, or nurses,” she says. “For the most part, they have really big dreams—they just don’t know how to get there.”

With O’Brien’s support, a girl who dreams of being a lawyer recently got into Texas Southern University, and a boy whose family makes less than $10,000 got a scholarship toward studies in petroleum engineering. Other students have interviewed with Harvard and Brown.

O’Brien’s successes are exactly the kind that the Advise TX College Advising Corps aims to produce. Think of the corps as Teach for America for college advisors. The program’s mission is to increase the number of racially diverse, low-income, and first-generation students earning college degrees. To accomplish this, it trains new grads like O’Brien specifically for placement in needy high schools.

During this year, the program’s first in Texas, there have been 15 corps members serving in San Antonio, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley. Next year, the state corps will expand to 120 counselors, making it by far the biggest state advising program in the country.

Unlike Teach for America, which thrusts new grads into tough classrooms full-time, Advise TX members have more flexibility. They receive rigorous training before the program starts and structure as they go along. The program shares best practices nationally, and advisors collaborate on templates, documents, and workshops locally. The advisors also have excellent oversight: both a College Advising Corps staff member and a guidance counselor or principal supervise them.

“Teachers have to become masters of their curriculum. The things that our counselors have to master—like college admissions, scholarship applications, and financial aid—they are generally already experts on,” says Connie Freeman, the program’s deputy director. “They host events to celebrate students, conduct test prep, and meet with families. It’s more fluid than being in the classroom every day.”

Nationally, the College Advising Corps was launched in 2007 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and has spread to 14 states. Here in Texas, it is housed within the Institute for Public School Initiatives at the University’s College of Education.

Some 56 advisors will be recruited from UT for next year, and hopes are high that its impact will grow. In North Carolina, one area being served by the College Advising Corps showed a 14 percentage-point increase in the number of students going to two- and four-year institutions, Freeman says.

“We don’t want anyone to be left behind, and we know that’s happening in Texas and in the U.S.,” she says. “It’s a huge goal, but we believe these advisors can have a great impact.”

Adds O’Brien: “When I think about multiplying 15 of us to 120 advisors, I think we could begin to change the next generation of Texas—I really do. If 120 schools in Texas are getting this, that is thousands of students who will go to college, and that will change the course of the rest of their lives.”


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