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College 'coaches' keep kids on track

City's scholarship guides grads through education maze
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT High school student Jessica Buchanan looks over stacks of literature for a variety of colleges on Monday at the Portland National College Fair, which drew large crowds from around the Portland area. This week is

A promise of free tuition, books and fees is a big deal in the college world.

But that's not what gives the city's 'Future Connect' scholarship its drawing power, says Josh Laurie, who manages the scholarship program at Portland Community College. It's the support, he says, that makes the difference.

Each of the 130 Portland high school graduates awarded a PCC scholarship this fall was assigned a 'college success coach' to keep them on track.

They meet every few weeks, talk about their progress and goals, help navigate their financial aid forms, class schedules and eventual transfer to a four-year school.

'The scholarship is mainly for first-generation, low-income students,' Laurie says. 'It's the first-generation piece that is a huge barrier - there's not a whole bunch of individuals in their lives that have navigated this culture before. There's that cultural chasm that exists.'

Future Connect, which includes a monthlong 'challenge' that kicks off this week, is part of Portland Mayor Sam Adams' education initiative, one that has flown under the radar next to transportation, police, sewer rates and other major city issues.

Adams called attention to the work this week by organizing a Portland National College Fair that drew enormous crowds on Sunday and Monday.

He also proclaimed Oct. 31 to Nov. 6 as 'Portland Goes to College' week. In his video proclamation, Adams cites a handful of national college related statistics, but curiously leaves Portland-specific data out of the picture.

Among the data he cites: 'Only 38 percent of ninth graders nationwide will go on to enter college immediately after graduating from high school … six in 10 youth graduating will graduate from college within four years … only two of those six will go on to earn a certificate or a degree.'

Adams further notes that: 'College is becoming an increasingly important step on the path to economic success, with 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs in America requiring a post-secondary credential or training,' and '63 percent of jobs created in 2018 will require workers with at least some college education.'

Locally, the picture is just as dismal: just a third of Multnomah County students go on to college; only half finish college. Students with an associate's degree earn $8,000 more per year than people with a high school diploma. That grows to $17,000 more with a bachelor's degree.

According to the national nonprofit group CEOs for Cities, if Portland could increase its college degree attainment rate just one percent, the region would produce an additional $1.6 billion in per capita income.

A process for students

At high schools across the city this month, the college vibe is thick in the air.

Tables at counseling offices offer information on the Future Connect Challenge - a set of incentives designed to get students started on the path toward exploring their post-secondary options.

There are four challenge cards, one for each step of the process: talk with friends and family about post-secondary options; visit the college fair; schedule meetings with the college counselor; and fill out federal financial aid forms.

For each step completed, the student's name is entered in a raffle. Winners are chosen from the east, northeast and southeast regions of the district each week, plus there are five grand prizes, including a paid summer internship and a netbook.

Not all high schools were selected to participate, just those with large populations of students who don't traditionally continue on to college, according to Kali Thorne Ladd, Adams' education strategies director. They are: Reynolds, Centennial, David Douglas and Parkrose high schools, and Jefferson, Roosevelt, Madison, Franklin and Grant high schools in the Portland School District.

Liz Mahlum, a counselor at Grant, says there's been a lot of interest in the challenge at the school, which sends close to 80 percent of its students off to two- or four-year institutions but still has pockets of students who are underserved.

For the first time, Grant has an advisor with the Upward Bound program who has office space in the college and career center. The program targets freshmen and sophomores who are low-income first-generation college-goers.

'I think college is such a giant process,' Mahlum says. 'For any of our students, we try to separate the facts from the myths. We help them understand it's a process, not a prize to be won.'

PSU offers Exito

This fall, 130 Portland students enrolled in PCC with help of the Future Connect scholarships. Midway through the term, 95 percent are still enrolled. Three quarters of them are are nonwhite. Ninety-five percent are first-generation college-goers, and/or low-income.

Without the support the scholarship brings, 'many of them would be in college, I think the road would just be a little bit rougher,' Laurie says.

The city will soon award its second-round scholarships; up to 200 are available. A total of 165 students applied last year; 30 of them later opted out.

While the scholarship is only to PCC now, the city might expand to other public and private two- and four-year institutions, Thorne Ladd says.

Portland State University has been working on its own similar initiatives. This summer, the institution opened its 'Exito' program, which means 'success' in Spanish.

The Exito center, in the Smith Student Union, includes an adviser and other resources to engage students' families.

PSU has also started an effort to streamline its financial aid process. The university set up a one-stop shop for scholarships, created a Department of Diversity to focus on recruiting and retaining a broader demographic of students. And PSU just began a program called 'Last Mile,' which focuses on helping students who've dropped out within a few credits of graduating.

'Twenty-five percent of students entering kindergarten and first grade in Multnomah County are Latino,' says PSU spokesman Scott Gallagher. 'So (PSU) President (Wim) Wiewel wants to make sure we're serving that community. It's already underserved.'

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