Virtual Advising to Support Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students is More Urgent Than Ever

photo of author, Nick Watson

CollegePoint and ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning have been working together since 2018 to help increase the number of high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students enrolling in top-performing colleges—all without cost to the students.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, college enrollment rates have plummeted, jeopardizing recent gains that lower-income students and students of color have made in pursuing higher education. It’s the responsibility of student-serving institutions to address this crisis with urgency.

Even before the pandemic, undermatching – when an academically qualified student does not attend a top college – was a significant barrier to upward mobility for lower-income students.

It’s difficult to overstate what’s on the line. This moment has worsened existing inequities and caused many students to rearrange or abandon dreams.

For example, the pandemic pushed St. Louis-based, first-generation high school senior Tia Tricamo to refocus her college search to prioritize financial aid and live closer to home. Her dream school was once NYU, but New York City’s rapid uptick in COVID early on and high cost of living made her pause. With the help of her CollegePoint advisor, she’s now considering Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis as her top schools.

Six years ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched CollegePoint, which has reached 70,000 high-achieving, lower-income students like Tia, and provided free, virtual advising to help them apply to and attend the nation’s top schools.

But how do you swiftly adapt a program amid much greater need and a pandemic? You meet students where they are. First, CollegePoint worked to identify the key barriers. Students in underserved communities were attending high school virtually at higher rates, which often shut them out from normal college counseling. Many also lacked access to the technology and broadband they needed to learn remotely, let alone complete college applications.

Fortunately, CollegePoint has always been virtual. Through phone calls, text messages, video chats, and on social media – you name it – our advisors are working with students throughout this pandemic. Whether providing feedback on college essays, counseling families through the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) application, or providing encouraging words, our advisors are a stable resource students can count on.

Still, to meet the moment, we needed to adapt. In response to concerns of increased “summer melt,” advisors stayed in touch with students after they had chosen their colleges on into the fall, and used predictive analytics to identify and offer support to students most at-risk for not attending college due to financial circumstances.

We helped the class of 2021 access equipment like laptops and hotspots through stipends. And, because finding belonging on campus is critical for students’ success and retention, we launched 67 student-led campus pods at schools across the country and a virtual college fair so that college applicants could hear directly about campus culture.

CollegePoint is committed to continuing and expanding in a time when many more students need support to reach their long-term goals, even as they face immediate and often overwhelming difficulties. With so much at stake, we’re focused on helping students in ways that work for them, right now, when they need it most. 

Nick Watson is a longstanding higher education professional and the program lead for CollegePoint at Bloomberg Philanthropies, the first program to provide free virtual advising at scale — expanding the reach of the advising that is helping lower-income, high-achieving students attend the schools they deserve. You can find him on Twitter at @Nick_A_Watson, along with @CollegePoint and @BloombergDotOrg.