High school seniors struggle with college picks

Douglass Academy 12th-grader David Berry points to lots of acceptance letters in the high school's college counseling office.
Douglass Academy 12th-grader David Berry points to lots of acceptance letters in the high school's college counseling office.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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As high school seniors graduate, the ones on their way to college trust that the choices they’ve made will guarantee a good education and a secure future. A recent visit with high school seniors at two campuses sheds light on how they decided on the college of their choice.

The future looks bright for half a dozen seniors gathered in the college counseling office at North High School in Torrance.

"I applied to 15 colleges," said 12th-grader Jasmine Park, "I got accepted to UCLA, UC Irvine, USC, Northwestern, Rice, Williams. Umm, I’m missing a few."

Yes, she failed to mention she’s been accepted to and will attend Harvard University. Her classmate Steven Marsalia wanted to stay in California after high school. "I only applied to six UC schools and I got into Irvine, Davis, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley."

He’ll begin an environmental science major at UC Berkeley in the fall. Everyone in this group said he or she lost sleep over this life-defining decision. 12th-grader Aileen Yoon said affordability trumped other considerations.

"I wanted to go into public relations and Chapman has a good program in their film school and I got a scholarship from them. It’s about 50 percent covered for four years. My other options were USC or NYU, but Chapman was more affordable," he said.

Parent and family opinions influenced Margie Ganar’s choice. "I’m very sure about my USC choice because I’m really excited to join the Trojan family and to join the community and go to football games and everything. My family is really happy because my great grandpa went to USC, my grandpa went to USC, my grandma went to USC. Like, my whole family."

Fellow senior Mazen Alloush doesn’t share Ganar’s family legacy. Still, he set his heart on an acceptance letter from USC. "I only applied to Cal States, because, it’s a really long story, my dad wanted me to. He’s like, you should do UCs and Cal States but those colleges are not the colleges for me, I know it. So the only one I really focused on was SC," Alloush said.

His Cal State applications were incomplete and USC turned him down. He’ll attend El Camino Community College in the fall in the hope he can transfer to USC later.

North High School college counselor Christine MacInnis said a new online college resource helps many students make their choices. Still, she said, the best approach is to let Alloush and his classmates own the choices they make.

"The competition to get into college is overwhelmingly difficult for our students. I know how crushed he was, I know how big a dream it was for him and I was one of those people pushing him, ‘Well, let’s apply to other places.’ He’s right, he has to follow what is going to make him happy, not what’s going to make his counselor feel better about herself or making sure he has all his options covered or his dad feel better," MacInnis said.

Mellon Foundation education researcher Matt Chingos believes Alloush’s approach is enlightened, compared to the haphazard way many high school seniors decide on college. Chingos said economic and class background increasingly shape which colleges students choose.

"What it comes down to is that a lot of the less affluent students just don’t have access to the information, forget about the support and encouragement from parents, but them and their families don’t know about the opportunities available to them and also about financial aid," Chingos said.

Chingos said college graduation rates are higher among high school seniors who are well matched with a college or university. Achieving that match is an inexact science. Personal and focused counseling in high school helps. Researchers say there’s a widening gap between the college counseling available at large public high schools and at smaller, publicly-funded charter schools.

"Our counselors know every single student, their parents, their story, their needs and that’s why we’re able to help them find a right fit. That’s why we’re able to have these conversations one on one," said Kathy Dominguez. She’s in charge of college counseling for the four charter high schools the ICEF Public Schools organization runs in the Los Angeles area.

"When we created a model for our college counseling program, we didn’t go to the traditional, large schools, for a model. We went to the small schools. What’s the Harvard Westlakes of the world doing?" she said.

Those private schools are securing college entry for most of their students through individualized attention and highly trained counselors. ICEF schools mirror that approach with admirable results.

Four-year colleges and universities admitted almost 80 percent of their graduates. One of them is Jessica Gordon, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy in L.A.’s West Adams district. She pointed to the college acceptance letters a proud advisor posted in the school’s college counseling room.

"I think there’s one from Mt. St. Mary’s, there’s mine from Cal State L.A., there’s one right there from Tuskegee, it’s a couple, I don’t know, it’s too many," she said.

In the fall, she’ll attend Dillard University in New Orleans for pre-med studies.

Douglass Academy’s student body is mostly working class African-American. It’s a small campus, with fewer than 50 students in the senior class.

Naquice Toliver is set to begin studies at private Loyola Marymount University in Westchester this fall.

"I didn’t know where I wanted to go when I first started, I was just applying here, applying there, first I thought I wanted to stay in California then I thought I wanted to leave. Now I’m staying. For me it was getting into college and getting good financial aid, so I could be able to stay for all four years without having to worry about paying off all these loans and all this," she said.

Toliver said her decision became crystal clear after LMU offered a full scholarship. Administrators at her high school lobbied the university on her behalf. Despite that level of support, some students’ indecision still leads to poor choices, said 12th-grader Ghiya Ali.

"Out of all my friends, I’m the one that people come to for advice and stuff. So, they’re all like, ‘Well, what should I do? I want to do this but I want to do that.’ I’m like, do what you want to do but think about how it’s going to affect you later," Ali said.

The school’s administrators say budget cuts at nearby traditional public high schools have decimated college counseling. ICEF relies on private fundraising to supplement public education funding and doesn’t expect to downsize its counseling next school year.

But these charter schools are finding that securing college acceptance letters for most of their students isn’t enough. A significant portion of the students they’ve sent to college have dropped out because their money ran short. So next year the school will begin weekend financial aid workshops for students and parents.