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New program teaching how to get into college
To College and Back

Most high school students know they need good grades to get into college, but not every student--or parent--knows what else they might need or what to do beyond studying hard.

"Unless you know someone who's been through the process and who has an extra amount of time to share the experience of the process [of applying to college], you're on your own," said Patty Widdowson, whose daughter is a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Widdowson and her daughter turned to a program called Admission Control to help them navigate the tricky and tedious process of college applications. Widdowson's daughter is part of Admission Control's 100 percent success rate in getting kids into college.

All systems go
Admission Control is a private service that helps students and parents learn the ropes of the college-admission process. The program, which works with students from Jack C. Hays High School and the Academy at Hays in Hays County, is funded by private grants and donations and is free to students. The Hays Consolidated Independent School District supports the program and provides space for Admission Control staff.

Lisa Fielder, executive director, developed Admission Control at her kitchen table in 2003. She held the program's first classes, with 45 students, in January 2004.

Students sign up in their junior year and work with an Admission Control coach until they finish high school. The program admitted another 45 juniors in fall 2005 and hopes to keep enrollment to about 90 students--45 juniors and 45 seniors each year.

Each coach works with 10 students and families. Coaches provide information to parents in Spanish and English, but only offer information to students in English since that's what they will have to speak in college, Fielder said.

Throughout the two-year program, students review SAT and ACT test materials and take the actual SAT twice and the ACT once.

Although there are plenty of SAT and ACT prep courses offered through organizations such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, Admission Control targets families and students that might not be able to afford the nearly $1,000 price tag that comes with them.

"We are working with economically disadvantaged students," said Fielder. "Most of our students qualify for the national free or [reduced-price] lunch program."

That puts Admission Control's students' family incomes at or below $34,000 a year for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet many low-income students need the extra help, Fielder said.

"Most prep material is designed for students who would score about 1,000 [on the SAT]," she said. "Low-income students fall about 200 points below that, so most materials are already over their heads."

To deal with these problems, an SAT prep consultant worked with Admission Control for free to redesign the curriculum.

High-risk for no education
Barely 16 percent of economically disadvantaged Texas students will attend any kind of post-secondary education institution, according to Admission Control. That can strongly affect earning potential. Workers with a bachelor's degree can earn nearly twice as much as those with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"In general, we find that the students that we work with are very bright kids and really want to go to college, and their parents would love for them to go to college," Fielder said. "The whole family recognizes the value of a college education in today's world. But they don't really know how to tackle all the steps it takes to get to college."

Gabriel Carmona, a freshman at Sul Ross State University, credits Admission Control with getting him into college.

"Getting to know [Admission Control] has really opened my eyes to what college can do," Carmona said. "With my financial status, I never would have thought I could come to college."

Admission possible
School counselors identify low-income students who qualify for the program, and Admission Control invites them to apply.

"Although their high school counselors are eager to help them, the counselors don't have the resources to help the students closely through every step," Fielder said.

Jeanette Bockholt, a counselor for Hays High School, said she doesn't have the time that Admission Control's staff does to spend with the students.

"I have around 500 students myself altogether--123 seniors," Bockholt said.

Bockholt and her staff meet with students and their parents several times to keep students on track for graduation, as well as to find out which colleges the students hope to get accepted into and what colleges have strong programs for what they're interested in.

They also work closely with Fielder and her staff to make sure students are making the right decisions.

"We just ask them to be realistic with the kids," Bockholt said. "Don't apply out-of-state when they're not going to be able to go very far from home."

Touring choices
Admission Control also arranges campus tours and overnight visits to help students pick the right college for them.

"We discovered that many students and [their] families were not able to go on college visits," Fielder said.

The program reports that of the 16 percent of economically disadvantaged students in Texas who go to college, only 6 percent will earn a four-year degree.

"We actually think that one of the reasons for such a high college dropout rate for this demographic is that they don't have help through the selection process," Fielder said.

The program also teaches how to fill out pages of financial aid forms that can confuse or put off some parents.

"You get intimidated," Widdowson said. "You get lumped into this category that you are 'less than.' There's a stigma that's attached to it that you don't ask questions because you will sound stupid. You haven't chosen to be uneducated [about the admissions process]; you just haven't been exposed to it."

Widdowson is grateful the program was there to help her daughter get into college.

"There's not enough education on how to get educated," she said.

Fielder said some students drop out of the program while in high school, but of the 84 percent of students who completed the program, 100 percent were enrolled in college within eight months of graduating high school.

"Other programs haven't been successful, but we are successful," Fielder said.

The program worked so well that two parents from the first year's class went to college as well, Fielder said.

To capitalize on that success, Admission Control launched a new program in December 2005, funded by a private grant of nearly $100,000, to encourage more parents to go to college.

On the degree path
Admission Control also tries to help kids stay in college. Through a program called Destination Graduation, students stay in contact with Admission Control and other students through their coaches and an online chat forum.

"We also send them care packages for finals and have a party for them when they get home from college for winter break," Fielder said. "Then we'll be in touch with them again in January for financial aid forms, [and to] help those that want to transfer. For the whole time they're in college, we'll be sending them care packages and having get-togethers for them. There's someone out there for them to turn to."

Ann Holdsworth