Chicago-area college mentorship program aims to enroll more low-income high-achievers in selective colleges

By Nate Mickelberg, Medill Reports Chicago


For high school junior Patrick Zajac, Swarthmore and Bowdoin may as well have been the names of breakfast cereals instead of liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. 

“I had never even heard of half these schools,” said the senior-to-be at Maine East High School in Park Ridge. “I was familiar with like Northwestern, U of I, probably Stanford. I had never heard of all these smaller schools.” 

Across the board, high-achieving, low-income students such as Zajac aren’t applying to selective colleges and universities. A recent study found that many of these students are not sufficiently exposed to these selective schools or the college application process in general. 

One Chicago-area program is working to change that. 

The Schuler Scholar Program is a privately run mentorship and scholarship program aimed at enrolling under-resourced, high-potential high school students in selective, private colleges across the country. Zajac is one of 49 students who participates in the program at Maine East, which established a Schuler branch in 2010. The northwest suburban high school is one of eight in the Chicago area that has partnered with Schuler to identify kids who would benefit from individualized academic and counseling services and who meet certain requirements. 

“There are two components to qualifying for acceptance,” said Karly Vance, Schuler educational counselor at Maine East. “One thing is they have to be academically strong in middle school. They have to show that they have that potential. And so we go into the middle schools and look for students who are meeting certain grade and test score criteria.” 

Students are then invited to learn more about the program at a family night, where the second qualifier is introduced: They must be low-income or underrepresented on a college campus ethnically or first generation in their family to go to college in the US. 

If they make it to the next round, the kids must then submit a formal application accompanied by writing samples and teacher recommendations before finally interviewing with Schuler staff, a grueling process for most eighth-graders. 

If accepted, they officially become Schuler Scholars and beginning their freshman year work one-on-one with tutors known as Schuler Scholar Coaches, many of whom are graduates of selective, private colleges and universities themselves. The coaches work with the scholars on math, foreign language and reading comprehension 2-3 days a week in 20-minute blocks and once a week after school for 90 minutes. 

One of the coaches at Maine East, Katie Russell, who is a recent graduate of Tufts University, a private university outside of Boston, said the time the coaches spend working with the scholars is about much more than the kids just getting help with a difficult trig problem. It’s about exposing them to people who have been through the college admissions process and have attended the schools to which the students will eventually be applying. 

“I think it’s about opening their eyes to some options they wouldn’t have known about before,” said Russell, who currently works individually with 13 kids on European and US history and reading. “They know the bigger schools, DePaul, UIC. I think it’s just about helping them see. 

“What’s really great about the environment is that people ask me, ‘Tufts, where’s that? Oh, it’s in Boston. And then there’s so many schools in Boston. I can talk to them about that.” 

Vance, who oversees and counsels all the Schuler Scholars at Maine East, said her experience with a lot of the kids has been similar. 

“It’s not as if the students are like, ‘I never thought I could go to such a good school as Vanderbilt,’” Vance said. “It’s, ‘I didn’t know Vanderbilt existed. What is Vanderbilt?’ 

“And it’s not even like for them, ‘I never thought I could achieve this height, and now I’m achieving it.’ It’s a from-zero learning process about, what are these schools? Why do I want to go there?” 

The December 2012 study for the Brookings Institution and National Bureau of Economic Research also concluded that many high-achieving, low-income students “are insufficiently geographically concentrated to be reached, cost-effectively, by popular methods of informing students about their college opportunities: visits by admissions staff to high schools, campus visits by students, after school college access programs." 

To put it another way, colleges are essentially “searching under the lamp-post,” looking for these low-income students “where the college is, instead of looking for low-income students where the students are.” 

And since many of the most selective, private colleges and universities tend to be concentrated in a select few urban areas, many suburban schools such as Maine East tend to get neglected, even if unintentionally. 

That’s why the summer college experience, a 2-5 week program that allows Schuler Scholars to live and take classes on a college campus the summer after their sophomore year, is so beneficial, according to Jenise Holloway, the Schuler college counselor at Maine East. 

“That’s also where the exposure to all of these other schools comes from,” said Holloway, who begins working with students on the college admissions process at the beginning of their freshman year. Because most of these programs have students who are already in the pipeline for a lot of these schools. 

“So when they’re talking about the Carletons and the Pomonas and the trendy colleges, that’s when it starts to get on their radar a little bit more. And then they come back and they start saying, ‘Well this is what my friend said they’re applying to or their sister went or their brother went.’ And so it’s planting that seed and slowly helping them to become aware of some of these schools.”

To listen to the audio components of this article and see pictures of our Maine East program, see the original article at Medill Reports Chicago.