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Utah green-lights program to help high schoolers reach college

A pilot of the Utah College Access Corps found that students who met with a program counselor six times were 140 percent more likely to enter college. Now the program will expand to every high school in Utah. 

Sean P. Means/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Sarah Moore, a student at the University of Utah (l.), speaks with Sandi Pershing, assistant vice president at the university's office of engagement, outside a Utah Board of Regents meeting. The board approved expanding the Utah College Access Corps into schools across the state.

When Franco Jin was a student at Hillcrest High School four years ago, all of his friends were applying for college and he wasn't sure if he should be, too.

Mr. Jin, who moved to America with his family from Argentina when he was 12, would have been the first generation of his family to attend college. Besides, he already had a job.

"I was pretty happy working at KFC," Jin said. "They would let me eat all the chicken I wanted, no complaints."

Jin is now a senior pre-med student at the University of Utah, with applications out to about a dozen medical schools. "This is a completely different kind of happy that I get to experience," he said.

Jin would not have gotten that nudge into college, he said, without the Utah College Access Corps, a program in which recent college graduates take jobs in high schools to help students navigate the tricky task of applying for college, completing entrance exams, and securing financial aid.

The program, started as a pilot in 2007 and now operating in 12 Utah high schools, will be going statewide soon. On Friday, the Utah Board of Regents unanimously approved a plan to put a UCAC counselor in every high school in the state, making Utah the first state in the nation to have such an extensive program.

"It really does promote more college access," Jin said, "and it has a focus on those students who might not have those resources yet."

David Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, presented the regents with the numbers touting UCAC's success where it has been implemented. Students are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college after one meeting with a college-access adviser, 42 percent more likely after three to five meetings, and 140 percent more likely after six meetings.

A harder number to swallow may be the budget. Mr. Buhler said taking the program statewide will cost about $7 million. The bulk of that, $5.99 million, will be requested from the Utah Legislature next January. The rest, Buhler said, will be found shuffling money from other Utah higher-ed funding.

Patricia Jones, a regent and a former Utah legislator, said she thinks "the Legislature will understand this is the best outcome for the dollar that they can spend."

Of the 12 schools with UCAC advisers in place, 11 are in the Salt Lake City area, and one is at Pineview High School in St. George.

The Granite School District now has UCAC counselors in six of its eight high schools, said Judy Petersen, the district's director of college and career readiness. The advisers are prioritized toward schools with a higher percentage of low-income kids who would be first-generation college students, she said.

One strength to the program, Petersen said, is that the advisers are "near-peers," just out of college themselves, so they're familiar with what the high-school kids are facing. "They have their ear to the ground, about what [the students] want to hear about college readiness," Petersen said.

The toughest hurdle for would-be college students, both Jin and fellow University of Utah student Sarah Moore said, was navigating financial aid.

"My parents didn't really know much about how to get me through college, how to get me into it, and how to pay for it. The UCAC advising really helped me exponentially," said Ms. Moore, a 2017 Hunter High School graduate now studying social work. Her adviser helped her through the application process for scholarships, and she now has a full ride.

The adviser jobs are short-term, "gap year" positions, said Sandi Pershing, assistant vice president in the University of Utah's Office of Engagement. But some advisers use the one- to three-year gig as a stepping stone to a career in counseling.

Nomani Satuala did that. Mr. Satuala worked two years as an adviser at Kearns High School. Now he's at the University of Utah's Office of Orientation and Transition – helping new college students, including the ones UCAC advisers aim his way, navigate their first days of college.

Satuala recalled running into an undocumented Kearns High grad at Walmart who told him that she had gotten into college, and received a scholarship, thanks to his help. "Getting that scholarship made it possible where she could go to college," Satuala said.

This story was reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, and distributed by The Associated Press. 

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