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Who Teaches Students about College and What Do They Tell Them?

Who is responsible for helping students navigate the road to college? When students get to high school, most assume the responsibilities of college advising falls on the lap of the School Counselor. While School Counselors do provide the structure for college advising, students often fail to utilize provided resources and instead rely on others, including teachers, family, and peers for guidance.

In a 2015 national student survey of over 55,000 high school students, YouthTruth found that less than 30% of students sought the help of their School Counselor for college admission requirements, how to apply to college, and how to pay for college.

% of Students who participated in school counseling services
Counseling About Future Career Possibilities
Counseling About Admission Requirements
Counseling About How to Apply for College
Counseling About How to Pay for College

If students are not utilizing school counseling services, then where are they getting their information? A 2012 study by Martinez and Cervera analyzed the college information sources for nearly 12,000 underrepresented minority students and concluded that over half of the students sought help from multiple sources including high school staff, family members, and friends.

African American
Sought Information from Friends
Sought Information from Family Members
Sought Information from High School Staff (includes Counselor, Teacher, Coach)
source: Cervera, Yesenia Lucia & Martinez, Sylvia (2012). Fulfilling Educational Aspirations: Latino Students’ College Information Seeking Patterns. Journal of Hispanic Education, 11(4), 388-402.

While these mentioned sources may have the best of intentions and think they are helping, quite frequently the information teachers, parents, and peers are passing along is out of date, incorrect, or not appropriate for that individual student’s situation.

Generally, most teachers, parents, and peers are good sources for motivation on WHY to go to college, but lack training and information on HOW to apply to and select a college to attend. Additionally, they are severely ill equipped to provide information to students on how to pay for college.

For example, the media, both traditional and social, have inundated our culture with the idea that college is completely unaffordable for low income students and the only way they can get a college degree is to take on massive debt. This is simply not true if you really understand and utilize the financial aid resources available from both state and federal government to make college goals a bit more attainable.

Consider the following example of a student living in South East Los Angeles, CA who has earned admission to California State University Los Angeles. This student is being told by everyone around him that he should just attend the local community college because it is cheaper.

The reason why community college appears to be so much cheaper than CSULA is that over the past 10 years the state of California has diverted funds away from higher education, passing along a large percentage of the cost of college on to the student. This has hit middle class families the hardest, but really has not had much impact on low income students. While the price of college tuition/fees continues to grow, the state aid available to low income students continues to cover the increased price.

Below is a chart comparing the two college’s cost of attendance.

Living at Home / Commuter Student 2019-2020
East Los Angeles College
California State University Los Angeles
Books and Supplies
Room and Board

In the above table, the only invariable cost is Fees/Tuition. All other costs vary based on the individual student situation. At face value, Yes, the cost of community college is less expensive., but when you input the state aid available to low income students the cost difference to pay for Fees/Tuition is only $299 not the nearly $5,000 as shown in the table above.

East Los Angeles College
California State University Los Angeles
Cost Difference to Student
State Grant – California Promise or Cal Grant
Balance Due by Student

Also, there are additional state and federal grants usually available to help cover the costs of books and supplies. This is important for students to understand and factor into their decision. Students need to realize and better understand that the cost of “going to college” is really more under their control based on their ability to manage all of their other variable expenses. Regardless of where a student goes to college – or not – they (or their parents) will need to pay for food, housing, transportation, insurance, entertainment, and a host of other life needs.

Returning to the choice that needs to be made by our student in South East Los Angeles, truly understanding the cost difference can impact the student’s final choice of which college to attend. Rather than simply “going to community college because it’s cheaper” the student can now compare the actual cost difference and make the determination on which college is actually a better fit rather than simply which one appears to be less expensive.

Financial Aid for college is an exceptionally complicated and highly individual process that all K-12 staff should be aware of and be provided training. School Counselors may take the lead on providing information to students, but all staff contribute to the messaging on the school campus and ultimately set the expectations of where their students believe they can go to college.


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