It’s Time to Level the Playing Field
Dave Eggers, ScholarMatch founder
If you have been outraged by the college admissions scandal, there is a way to channel your outrage: Donate to ScholarMatch, an organization that sends low-income students to college — and does everything they can to ensure that these students graduate.
We’ve read about the scheme wherein a ringleader by the name of William Singer fostered a network of coaches, proctors, test-takers and other operatives that made it possible for wealthy parents to buy access to colleges for their progeny. If you didn’t know it before, this was a wake-up call illuminating just how uneven the college access playing field is.
Usually this is manifested in ways that are less egregious but no more equitable. Every year, tens of thousands of wealthy parents hire private college counselors, who spend countless hours guiding their clients’ sons and daughters through the application process.
In contrast, here in California, the ratio of counselors to public high school students is 945 to 1.
And that’s not just college counselors. These are counselors, period — who work with students on everything from emotional well-being to class schedules to college applications. In many cases, these counselors are lucky to meet every one of their students; spending adequate time with each student to ensure real college access is just not possible.
But there are organizations that help level that playing field, and one of them is called ScholarMatch. I’m partial to this organization, because I had a hand in starting it back in 2010.
I’d been teaching high school students for a long time, through another San Francisco nonprofit called 826 Valencia. I’d written dozens of college recommendations for my students, and found that the students from families where the parents had been to college were far more prepared for the application process than those kids who would be the first in their family to attend. More often than not, these kids were bewildered by the process and were completely unprepared to find the right schools and navigate the labyrinth of financial aid.
So ScholarMatch was born to address this need for more one-on-one, free college advising. We made a dent or two in our early years, but it wasn’t until Diana Adamson took over, nine years ago, that the organization became one of the most successful college-access organizations in the United States.
Here are some more startling statistics, and one very inspiring one:
In this country, the graduation rate for all those who begin college is 55 percent. That means that of all the students who begin college, only 55 percent graduate.
That is a scandal itself, but for low-income students, that graduation rate drops to 26 percent. Think of it: for those students coming from low-income families, even when they get into college and enroll — a monumental feat in itself — fully 74 percent of them drop out.
But after years of research and input from students, ScholarMatch has arrived at a model that has achieved a pretty stunning rate of success.
Among the students enrolled in ScholarMatch — all of whom are low-income students, and most of whom are first in their family to attend college — fully 81 percent graduate.
That’s twenty-six points higher than the national average for all college students, and 55% higher than the average for other low-income students.
How do they do this? The solution begins and ends with people. Starting their junior year in high school, ScholarMatch students are matched with a volunteer coach who supports them with tackling their college applications. Then, once they get into college, that student is matched with a ScholarMatch College Advisor, an advisor that supports them 24/7 until they graduate. It’s that simple.
Actually, it’s not that simple. It’s relentless and multifaceted and even a bit obsessive. ScholarMatch volunteers and College Advisors do a lot, and are prepared to do anything:
- They help students fill out financial aid forms
- They help make sure a student’s college essays best reflect who they are
- They narrow down the students’ college application list, and ensure that they’re applying to schools that won’t leave them with crippling debt
- Once at college, they check in with their students multiple times a week via text, FaceTime, email — even visits to their college campuses
- They send care packages during finals
- They’re there with a plan of action when a student’s grades dip
- They’re there when a financial hardship at home threatens to derail their college career
- They are there every day, every week, until the student crosses the stage and seizes their diploma
For decades, college-access nonprofits have focused on getting students into college. But what we all realized was that that’s only half the battle. Getting them through college is the second half — and in some ways, the more difficult part of the task.
“First-generation college students need support — a lot of it,” says Nirvana Felix. She was the first in her family to go to college when she left Eastside San Jose’s Independence High School for UC Berkeley in 2012. Through ScholarMatch, Nirvana was able to attend UC Berkeley on a full-ride scholarship.
In addition to the financial support, Nirvana had access to Monica Mendez, her ScholarMatch College Advisor, who was available through text, call, FaceTime, and Skype whenever she encountered a problem or needed advice. “I went to a huge public high school that was under-resourced and didn’t prepare me for my transition to Cal. Monica’s support was invaluable, especially because there wasn’t anyone in my family that I could turn to when I was struggling with school,” Nirvana says.
On average, ScholarMatch College Advisors are in touch with their students at least 50 times during an academic term. Advisors help students navigate academic challenges, provide guidance with choosing a major and deciding on a career path, give support with budgeting and financial planning, and even troubleshoot socio-emotional struggles.
“At first, I wasn’t doing so great in school and I didn’t want to tell my mom about failing a class. When you’re the first person in your family to go to college, there’s so much weight on your shoulders. There isn’t any room for you to let your family down. Monica taught me how to be a better student and shared resources with me that helped me succeed in school. It was so helpful knowing that I had someone to turn to when things got tough. It kept me focused on the end goal, which was graduating from college and creating a better life for me and my family.”
Nirvana graduated from UC Berkeley in the spring of 2016. And because she felt so strongly about ScholarMatch and its mission, she joined the team immediately after graduation. Nirvana has been working at ScholarMatch, counseling students who also attend UC Berkeley, since June of 2016.
ScholarMatch currently serves over 2000 students across the country. The model works. I can say this because though I’m still on the board, I am removed enough from the day-to-day that I can appreciate the work of ScholarMatch from a distance, and can cheer them on.
To that end, I’m hoping you’ll join me in an effort to raise money for ScholarMatch this spring and summer. Half a million dollars, in fact. This will help level the playing field and ensure that thousands of deserving students receive the help they need. In this most unequal of times, we need to support every effort that gets it right.
ScholarMatch is a non-profit education organization based in San Francisco, whose mission is to make college possible for underserved students. Their 7 year program supports students from low-income backgrounds get to and through college and into a meaningful career.