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Getting Into College Takes More Than Money

September 01, 2000|CAROL JAGO | Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. E-mail: jago@gseis.ucla.edu

California's proposed $1.2-billion college scholarship program has made legislators drunk on the heady wine of self-congratulation. Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) called the program "historic." His Sacramento colleagues and the governor agree.

It may well be, but allocating tax dollars for tuition is only one step toward making a college education available to all. Before students can take advantage of a scholarship, they first need help applying. Though I have been assisting students with college applications for years, it wasn't until I began the process with my own child that I realized what a minuscule contribution my help with essays and recommendations had been.

Applying to college is a yearlong ordeal. I don't know how any teenager, nevermind one who is the first in the family to consider college, could ever manage it alone. Maybe I'm wrong here and other 17-year-olds are more industrious and self-motivated than the one I live with. I'm sure there are a few paragons out there who send off for forms, return response cards, sign up for test dates, make plans for campus visits and generally get on with this complicated process all the while keeping up their grades and playing varsity soccer. This just doesn't happen to be my experience. What I see is a busy and preoccupied teenager who has every intention of attending a good college and can't imagine that he should be doing anything other than going to school to make that happen.

A few months ago, I spent the better part of a morning signing my son up for the ACT, SAT and SAT II exams. I am not a novice to Web site forms, and it still wasn't easy. Of course, James should have been doing this for himself, and family therapists reading this will no doubt point out that I contribute to his incompetence by doing too much for him, but I wanted this piece of the puzzle done right, and I wanted it done now. Mothers of teenagers know that those two things can be difficult to make happen unless you do the job yourself.

The thousands of students who are in line to take advantage of the new Cal Grant program are going to need more than scholarship dollars waved in their faces if we hope to see them in college next fall. They are going to need help. High schools should offer classes during summer school or the first semester of senior year that are specifically devoted to applying for college. How else can teenagers who don't have obsessive parents manage to get all the pieces of their college applications assembled? It isn't fair that only those who do or those who can afford private college counselors for fees ranging from $500 to $1,500 should be the ones getting accepted. Banners urging students to think early about college are never going to be enough. Teenagers need to be nagged daily.

John Mockler, Gov. Gray Davis' interim secretary of education, has said, "Income is not going to be an impediment to college--not just in theory, but as a matter of statutory right." Fine words, but unless we provide students with college counselors, students will have great difficulty exercising this right.

A public high school counselor looks after between 600 and 900 students and rarely follows the same students from ninth through 12th grade. His or her duties range from scheduling to discipline to supervision. What every student applying to college also has a right to is a guide, someone who knows the student well and also knows about filling out financial aid forms. Botch your application and no amount of scholarship money will get you into college.

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