Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Pairing up to take the pain out of college search

By Danielle Berger, CNN
February 21, 2013 -- Updated 2234 GMT (0634 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

San Jose, California (CNN) -- At 17 years old, Jessica Perez is an honor student who aspires to be the first member of her family to graduate from college.

But when it came to the application process, she felt lost, alone and ill-prepared.

"I didn't really know where to start," said Perez, who wants to be an astrophysicist. "There wasn't really anybody at home that could help me figure out how I could reach my dream."

Perez's grandparents, who raise Perez and her two siblings, both work long hours to make ends meet. And neither continued their education beyond elementary school.

Fortunately for Perez, she was directed by her school guidance counselor to a nonprofit called Strive for College.

"It helps students who don't really know anything about the college process," she said. "College students come to you and they tell you how to do it because they've been through it also."

Strive for College pairs high-school students with college students for free, one-on-one consultation over a yearlong period. Each pair works together through the application process for colleges, scholarships and financial aid.

Michael Carter\'s nonprofit has already helped 600 low-income students enter four-year colleges and universities.
Michael Carter's nonprofit has already helped 600 low-income students enter four-year colleges and universities.

"We take them through every little step of the process, because, frankly, it's a pretty detailed process -- and if you miss one step, you could ruin all your chances," said Michael Carter, who founded the nonprofit in 2007 while he was a college freshman.

So far, Strive for College has already helped 600 low-income students across the country enter four-year colleges and universities. And it expects to help an additional 900 this year.

Carter grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of San Jose, California. He attended private school throughout his early childhood, and he remembers his grandfather calling him a "menso" -- basically translated to "moron" in Spanish -- for claiming everyone in the United States got an equal shot at success.

That pessimism started to make more sense to Carter when he transferred to a public high school in his junior year.

"Going to private schools, a lot of students who didn't do amazingly academically knew they were going to a four-year college because their parents had gone. It was just a given," said Carter, 24. "Whereas a lot of students at my public school, even if they had great GPAs and SATs, they didn't know if they could go to a four-year college. It was just very foreign to a lot of them."

It didn't help that there were two guidance counselors for roughly 1,600 students. They just couldn't devote themselves to students who failed to approach them about college -- the very students who Carter felt needed this help the most.

"This made me realize that my grandpa was right, I was a menso," Carter said. "And it made me firmly believe that this was a problem that was solvable."

We take them through every little step of the process. ... If you miss one step, you could ruin all your chances.
CNN Hero Michael Carter

Carter designed a pilot study during his freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis. Pairing his classmates with low-income high school students at a nearby high school, he hoped to prove that college acceptance rates could be dramatically changed.

The pilot's success was astounding: 24 of the 27 seniors in the study were accepted into four-year colleges. In the previous year, the school's acceptance rate was only 1 out of every 30 seniors.

"At first it was like, 'Wow, look at this amazing miracle that happened,' " Carter said. "But I quickly couldn't sleep at night thinking how many of the (students) the year before had earned the right to go (to college) and just no one helped them across the finish line."

Carter found that his study was indicative of a more widespread problem in the United States.

"There's over 400,000 low-income high school seniors every year who (are) qualified to go to a four-year college, and for whatever reason they just don't go," Carter said.

And the difference between going to college and not going to college can often mean limited career opportunities or growth. Over a 40-year career, college graduates on average make nearly $1 million more than someone with only a high school degree, according to the U.S. Census (PDF).

"When my first (mentee) called me and said, 'I got into my first college. You helped changed my life,' I started crying," Carter said. "I was like, 'I think I really did help change your life.' And it was just an amazing feeling."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2013 CNN Heroes

With the help of high-school administrators, Strive for College targets youth who attend schools where 50% or more of the students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch.

To participate, students must have a GPA of at least 2.0. Interested students fill out a questionnaire about their academic and financial histories as well as their interests, abilities and ambitions. Then they can attend a "speed-dating-style" session in which they choose their college student mentor.

Throughout the school year, pairs meet at the high school once a week for an hour. The process takes the students through each step: selecting their target schools, filling out applications, writing essays, obtaining letters of recommendation, targeting scholarships and financial aid, reporting test scores and completing entrance exams.

"As a mentor, your role can be coach, pseudo-parent, cheerleader," Carter said. "But it's that amazing near-peer connection of young people with young people ... helping them through a process you just went through yourself, and taking the mystery and anxiety out of it, that I think is really important."

Strive for College also aims to help students graduate with the least amount of student loan debt possible, ensuring stronger graduation rates and enhancing the college experience. With scholarships and financial aid, 40% of Strive students attend four-year colleges without having to come out of pocket for their tuition -- compared with 32% of low-income college students nationwide.

Beginning this spring, mentors and mentees will be able to communicate and track progress over the interactive "UStrive" community website. The social network will allow students to track the curriculum's calendar and see when their peers complete major steps in the application process. Participants can make suggestions and bookmark items of interest for others.

Carter has found that the social component helps students stay on track with their goals.

"It creates peer pressure, but of a rare, positive kind. As they see one another looking at great universities and trying to aim for great financial aid packages, then their peers, their friends also say, 'If you can do that, I can, too.' And they start to raise their goals," he said. "It's a really powerful process in which you're building a culture of achievement in the schools."

It's a culture that helped Shanna Brancato raise her own academic ambitions. The former foster child had never considered college as part of her future when she was encouraged to attend her first Strive for College session in her junior year of high school.

"I've never really thought of myself as the greatest student. College was not on my mind," she said. "Now I'm a sophomore at San Jose State University. My full tuition is covered, and I'm mentoring a high school student."

Many former mentees, like Brancato, become Strive for College mentors.

"It's that 'paying it forward' mentality that is building a Strive movement that will solve this problem, I think, within the next decade," Carter said.

Carter graduated from college in 2010 and has devoted himself full-time to his nonprofit. Strive for College now has 12 university chapters working in 15 high schools nationwide, and it is planning to launch eight more chapters this year.

"The more we grow, the more students we help, the greater our impact, the bigger our movement," Carter said. "We'll go from changing hundreds to thousands of lives, to changing hundreds of thousands, and some day soon, even millions.

"I'm so sure this will happen, because I believe in our generation. I know our mentors. I know the students we serve. And I know that together we are going to solve this problem."

Want to get involved? Check out the Strive for College website at www.striveforcollege.org and see how to help.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0303 GMT (1103 HKT)
Chad Pregracke, who has dedicated his life to cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, is the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
CNN Hero of the Year Chad Pregracke pledged to give $10,000 of his winnings to each of the other top 10 Heroes.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
Celebrities joined CNN in New York to honor this year's top 10 Heroes.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
They clean up rivers, build homes for disabled veterans and bring health care to some of the darkest parts of the world.
October 16, 2013 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
It was supposed to be a routine patrol in Iraq. But when the Humvee he was in veered slightly off the road, Dale Beatty's life changed forever.
November 3, 2013 -- Updated 2346 GMT (0746 HKT)
Dr. George Bwelle travels through Cameroon's jungles to provide free medical care for thousands.
October 21, 2013 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
Many Americans lack easy access to fresh, healthy food. That isn't acceptable to Robin Emmons.
October 28, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Foster children don't often get the things that other children do, but one group is trying to help change that.
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 2325 GMT (0725 HKT)
For many people, the violence in Camden, New Jersey, can make it feel more like a war zone than an American city.
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 2144 GMT (0544 HKT)
For many children fighting cancer, it can be extremely tough to make their chemotherapy appointments.
November 11, 2013 -- Updated 0047 GMT (0847 HKT)
When Kakenya Ntaiya was 14, she negotiated a deal with her father: I'll endure female circumcision if you let me finish high school.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Chad Pregracke has made it his life's mission to clean up the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways.
November 1, 2013 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Estella Pyfrom noticed that fewer students had access to a computer after school. So she bought a bus and brought technology to the kids.
October 13, 2013 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
In many countries, mothers are dying during childbirth -- not because they lack skilled doctors, but because they lack reliable electricity.
ADVERTISEMENT