During his senior year in high school, Hector Rabadan was savvy about what it takes to impress colleges. He signed up for AP classes, focused on maintaining his grades and showed exceptional leadership qualities, including serving as captain of the soccer team.
But there was one thing that he didn’t know: How to navigate the college admissions process – especially the financial aid forms.
“It can really be overwhelming,” admitted Rabadan, a first-generation college student and now a freshman at Northern Illinois University. “But Jose helped me a lot...whatever I needed, he was there.”
Jose Heredia, a member of the University of Chicago College Advising Corps, worked with Rabadan at Kelly College Prep in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, helping him across the finish line – and possibly changing the trajectory of his life.
Heredia, a first-generation college student and recent University of Chicago graduate, can relate to his students’ challenges.
“The paperwork can be daunting,” he said. With Rabadan, “We struggled greatly through the FAFSA verification process for three months. But in the end, we managed to get an estimate of the financial aid to NIU...and it came right before decision day on May 1.”
Like Rabadan, Heredia came from a predominantly under-resourced high school. Despite ranking sixth in his senior class of 250 in Athens, Ga., Heredia didn’t have much exposure to higher education– especially top-tier institutions. He had never before visited a big city and if his best friend hadn’t applied to UChicago, he wouldn’t have, either.
“A lot of parents try to be supportive, but there are lots of barriers – including language – that make it hard for them to give any help,” Heredia said. “That’s where we come in.”
It’s all part of an innovative partnership launched in 2017 between the University of Chicago and the national College Advising Corps. Today, these advisers work full-time at 10 local high schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides to demystify the college application process, increasing access for low-income and under-represented students.
Since its inception, the advisers – primarily UChicago alumni - have counseled an estimated 4,200 seniors who have submitted some 21,000 college applications, resulting in more than 9,000 acceptances and have been awarded more than $140 million in aid and scholarships.
Such results don’t happen by accident. Typically, the advisers meet one-on-one with their seniors during the school day, making sure the students are on track with everything from SAT/ACT testing to campus visits. Also, the advisers undergo five weeks of rigorous training from experts in college admissions, along with touring public and private institutions throughout Illinois.
The Adviser program falls under the broader umbrella of UChicago Promise – the university’s multipronged initiative designed to help students and families throughout the city gain admission to, pay for, and thrive in selective four-year institutions.
What makes it all work? Will Herald, director of the UChicago College Advising Corps, thinks it’s all about personal attention, along with a close collaboration with Chicago Public Schools staff.
“There is so much talent in our schools – teachers, administrators and, of course, students. But the average counselor to student ratio is 444 to 1 – and many have been asked to take on two or three additional roles,” Herald said. “We’ve seen that just by adding one extra person, we’re able to have an impact and drastically change the post-secondary outcomes in our local schools.”
Driven by data
The proof is in the national statistics. While U.S. college enrollment inched up by .04 percent Kelly’s enrollment increased by 3.3 percent the first year following implementation of CAC, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
For students who aren’t campus-bound, UChicago advisers help explore other options, whether that means polishing a cover letter for a job or seeking an apprenticeship in the building trades.
The goal is to have some kind of road map for whatever comes next, said Heredia, who plans to use his experience as a launching pad for his own future, either in shaping national education policy or working in admissions.
"I have really enjoyed my relationships with students. I know that I want to interact with them – and do whatever I can to set them up for success.”
By Bonnie Rubin