The White House has emphasized strengthening high-school counseling in its campaign to expand college access. Duke answered that call to action last spring, becoming the twenty-fourth higher-education institution to establish a chapter of the College Advising Corps (CAC), a nonprofit organization that aims to increase post-secondary enrollment among low-income and minority students by placing recent college graduates at underserved high schools to serve as full-time advisers.
The Duke CAC is made up of seven alumni, with placements at two partner high schools in Durham County and five high schools in rural communities in central and northern North Carolina. During individual appointments and classroom visits, the advisers guide students through all aspects of the college application process, from filling out a financial-aid form to writing an admissions essay. More broadly, they work to foster a college-going culture by promoting scholarship opportunities, arranging visits with admissions representatives, and holding practice standardized tests.
“The goal is to help these students understand that this is a process and that you can prepare for it,” says Girija Mahajan, director of the Duke CAC program. “Our advisers never tell students where to go—they inform and connect them with resources. Ultimately, we want to get [the students] to understand that there are more opportunities out there than less.”
For adviser Adam Petty ’14, communicating the range of these opportunities is a core responsibility. At Northampton High School (Northampton County), he has noticed that many of the students matriculate at one of a handful of local colleges after graduating, only to drop out after one semester. So, he emphasizes to his advisees the need to look beyond what’s comfortable, and he tries to emotionally prepare them to make the transition to college life better. Petty cites the near-peer feature of the CAC program as important to having these conversations. “Having those experiences fresh in mind and to be able to open up honestly and discuss them—it’s not something that perhaps one of their teachers or other guidance counselors could do.”
Although the advisers attend a summer training program prior to arriving at their placement high schools, all already possess the foundational knowledge necessary to step into their roles. For KellyNoel Waldorf ’14, working as an adviser at Bartlett-Yancey High School (Caswell County) has meant entering a familiar landscape. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina, and was the first in her family to attend college, and like many of the students she advises, comes from a low-income background. She knows the difficulties of navigating the college search in an under-resourced high school. Still, she is a firm believer that the process can be demystified somewhat through early-intervention programs. “Getting to the students earlier and filling that deficit of knowledge is really important,” she says.
Supported by the John M. Belk Foundation, the chapter is one of the university’s latest efforts to close gaps in college attainment. Duke unveiled plans last year to increase minority representation and degree completion in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, in part by enhancing teaching methods in introductory classes. That initiative, called the Collaboratory on Mentoring, Persistence, Assessment, and Student Success (COMPASS), was made possible by a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.