HOUSTON — Colorful college pennants line the walls in a small room at a public library branch in the city's Near Northside. At a table with stacks of flyers advertising scholarships, a family confers quietly with a counselor.
Students come here from miles around to meet—first-come, first-served—with advisers for help navigating all things higher education, from admissions tests to majors to meningitis shots. The advice is free. And entire families are welcome to take advantage of the program’s bilingual services, offered during worker-friendly evening and weekend hours.
This small resource center is called cafécollege Houston, and it is one of a few similar “storefront” college advising centers that have been set up in recent years. This location primarily serves low-income students of color, many of them the first in their families to pursue advanced degrees.
But those aspiring college students are not unique in needing quality advice, says Sergio Canizales, a college junior who works at cafécollege Houston.
“A place like this would benefit every high school student,” he says.
Helping Students See Options
Cafécollege Houston is across the street from a Fiesta Mart grocery store and a high school that mostly serves Hispanic students. Northside High was previously named for Confederate leader Jefferson Davis, and it was once labeled a “dropout factory” in a Johns Hopkins University study of institutions with low graduation rates.
At such high schools, counselors are often overwhelmed with large caseloads and unable to offer personalized guidance to students interested in more than a high school diploma, says Melissa Martinez, director of college access and success for Project GRAD Houston, the nonprofit that runs programs at cafécollege Houston.
That was the case for Canizales. He says he was near the top of his high school class, yet his school counselor didn’t have time to help him with college planning. His parents, while supportive, didn’t have personal insight to share, since neither of them finished high school. Additionally, because Canizales is not a U.S. citizen, he doesn’t qualify for federal financial aid.
All this made him feel his options were limited. Not wanting to burden his family, he initially planned to pursue a low-cost certificate after high school.
Ultimately, though, he enrolled at the University of Houston, where he now studies accounting. He commutes 20 to 30 minutes to campus from his family’s home and then walks to class from the cheapest parking spot available.
“My dad pushed me to pursue a bachelor’s degree because it would pay off in the long run,” Canizales says.
As Canizales discovered on his own, the costs and benefits of various post-secondary pathways are not always obvious. Advisers in Houston and at similar centers, like the original cafécollege in San Antonio and College Depot in Phoenix, are ultimately agnostic about which institutions students attend, but the experts try to help families discern subtleties that might make one college more financially accessible than another.
“Anything that has to do with money or finances and IRS forms, people get really scared they’re going to do something wrong,” says Rebeca González, program director at the San Antonio Education Partnership for the city’s cafécollege. “Knowing they can come here and they don’t have to worry about it, it’s a load off their shoulders.”
College Depot in Phoenix / Courtesy of College Depot
One Arizona student came into College Depot with a GPA of 3.8 in honors classes, a strong ACT score—and a recommendation from his high school guidance counselor to apply only to community colleges to keep tuition costs down, recalls Kristopher Seydel, assistant director of College Depot. Arizona has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the country: 924 to to 1 in 2015.
A counselor helped the student and his mom understand that if he qualified for Pell grants or won scholarships awarded for need or merit, going straight to a four-year college might actually be less expensive.
“He really wanted to go directly to the university, and it’s the first time he realized he could,” Seydel says.
Bringing College Access Into Communities
Community-based college advising centers get a lot of foot traffic through one-on-one counseling sessions and group workshops. At cafécollege San Antonio, (whose program director credits the concept to former mayor Julián Castro, now a presidential candidate), advisers see about 10,000 unique students each year. In College Depot's 10 years of operation, it's had 17,000 personal appointments and served 22,000 unique students. In recent years, more than three-quarters of seniors who completed at least two Depot advising steps enrolled in college.
Leaders credit the popularity of their programs, which all started with local government support, in part to the efforts they’ve made to welcome and respect families from marginalized groups.
At cafécollege Houston, “parking is accessible and it’s a comfortable and warm environment,” Martinez says. “They don’t feel intimidated.”
By offering guidance in both Spanish and English, these programs aim to make parents feel fully included as their children consider where to head after high school.
“Our philosophy is, the more the parent can be involved and on board with the planning process of their student, the greater likelihood of success for the student,” Seydel says.
Libraries in particular are natural homes for college advising programs that offer free, trustworthy information, says Lee Franklin, community relations manager for the Phoenix Public Library, which houses College Depot in the city’s flagship branch.
“Public libraries are one of the rarer places in today’s society where any and all are welcome,” she says. Patrons “may come in and make use of all the library has to offer, spend as much time as they need to in the library without having to spend any money.”
The desire to serve more people in their own neighborhoods led Project GRAD Houston to open a second center, called GRADcafé, in Baytown, a community 20 miles outside downtown Houston. But the nonprofit’s leaders realized there were still more area families who wouldn't make it to either location.
So Project GRAD went mobile. Not with an app—with a van.
Called GRADcafé on the Go, it drives around to high schools, church festivals, health fairs and wherever else people request it. Several people at a time can sit in the vehicle to get college advice.
This October, which Martinez calls FAFSA month, the van has been in high demand. So has cafécollege Houston. The first week the financial aid forms were available, 180 students came by the little library room seeking help with their federal student aid forms, getting themselves one step closer to college.