LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Time now for a weekend-long listen. Some high schoolers think of applying to colleges as almost a full-time job. There are essays and tests, loads of financial documents to assemble and calculations to make - and then a big decision. For high-achieving students who come from low-income families, the challenge is particularly difficult. Research shows that 1 in 4 juggle all of that - the writing, the studying, the researching and applying - completely on their own. One approach to make this whole process easier - pair students up with someone who can help, a mentor or adviser, virtually. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It's Tuesday night, a school night, and Johnny Dang, a high school senior in Austin, Texas, is sitting on his bed, getting comfortable for a long-distance phone call.
JOHNNY DANG: Hello?
NADWORNY: On the other end, Theresa Heitz, a 24-year-old college adviser based in Minnesota.
THERESA HEITZ: Hey, Johnny?
DANG: Hey, Teresa.
HEITZ: How are you?
DANG: I'm doing really well. I'm stressed out, of course.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Johnny and Theresa have been checking in like this all school year, paired up through a program called CollegePoint that's funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Here's how it works. When a high school student like Johnny takes the PSAT or SAT and they do well, and they come from low-income or moderate-income families, they get an e-mail from the program offering them a free virtual adviser.
HEITZ: I was thinking maybe we could just, like, dive in and you could kind of walk me through what you're thinking right now.
NADWORNY: This will turn out to be a big night for Johnny, and we'll come back to that phone call in a bit. All over the country, advisers like Theresa are doing this - listening, guiding and answering students' many questions. The goal - help gifted students go to schools that match their intellectual ability. Connor Rechtzigel, an adviser based in the Twin Cities, says that means helping his students select the right schools.
CONNOR RECHTZIGEL: It's just sort of combating stereotypes or kind of dispelling some myths.
NADWORNY: Things like, yes, you can study science at a liberal arts school or, no, the state school isn't always the cheapest option. And research shows that low-income students are far more likely to undermatch - to apply and attend schools that aren't as challenging or competitive - in part because they don't think they have what it takes to get it and because many don't even know what schools are out there.
RECHTZIGEL: A lot of students think that there is no middle between your state flagship institution and the Ivy League.
NADWORNY: One of Connor's students, Justice Benjamin, he thought that. He's a senior from East Orange, N.J., and the first in his family to apply to college.
JUSTICE BENJAMIN: I was just thinking whatever college accepts me, for the most money I can get - scholarship or whatever it is - I'm going there.
NADWORNY: After he talked with Connor, he started thinking about all of his adviser's questions.
BENJAMIN: What's your ideal learning experience? Do you like a big college town?
NADWORNY: He narrowed in on smaller schools where he could study environmental science. His final choice - Skidmore College in upstate New York. He says he felt empowered by the process.
BENJAMIN: You don't have to choose, like, whatever comes to you. You get your own choice.
NADWORNY: Johnny Dang, the senior in Texas on that evening phone call, he wasn't totally lost at the start. He's the child of two Vietnamese immigrants, and he goes to a public magnet school. It does have good supports for students applying to college. So when he got the notice saying he'd qualified for a CollegePoint adviser, he thought, nah, I don't need special help.
DANG: I wasn't a student who identified as, like, I don't know what to do. Like, I did my research and I knew how to approach college.
NADWORNY: He already knew a few people who went to Rice University, a small private research school in Houston. It's close to home, excellent science programs. It was his top choice. But eventually, his adviser gained his trust.
DANG: Having Theresa there was just really, like, reassuring. And I think it was good, like, mentally to, like, have a person say, like, yes, you are doing this correctly.
NADWORNY: Theresa helped him craft his college essay about the TV show "Golden Girls" and its influence on little Johnny. And with her urging, he decided to apply for some Ivy League schools. In early April, the letters came. He'd made it into an Ivy - the University of Pennsylvania, Penn. He also got into Rice, which is why now, on this Tuesday night chat, they're talking about one of the biggest decisions in Johnny's life.
DANG: I think I shared with you the Rice and UPenn pros-and-cons document, and I think you're on it right now. Are you?
HEITZ: Yes, I am. I can see it.
NADWORNY: They go down the list. Academics are both strong. Penn has an excellent medical school. Johnny's interested in medicine. And Rice has the Texas Medical Center.
HEITZ: The one thing that we haven't talked about...
HEITZ: ...Has just been, like, the whole financial side.
NADWORNY: Navigating the finances - it's not just Johnny. Paying for college is a huge part of the CollegePoint program.
KATE NAKHLE: For a big chunk of my job, I feel like a financial adviser.
NADWORNY: That's Kate Nakhle. She's an advisor in North Carolina. She is working with McKenna Hensley, a high school senior in Ohio.
NAKHLE: McKenna and I, we spend a lot of time comparing and analyzing her financial aid award letters.
NADWORNY: And there are a lot of those letters. McKenna got into nine schools. McKenna's dad did go to college. When I ask her if that made it easier...
MCKENNA HENSLEY: Listen. My dad went to college in the '80s. (Laughing) I could not rely on him for an answer to a question that I had.
NADWORNY: But, she says, she had adviser Kate. For all those award letters, Kate used a spreadsheet on Google...
HENSLEY: Here it is.
NADWORNY: ...Where McKenna could enter in all her college costs then compare. And that money spreadsheet, it saved her.
HENSLEY: Let me make it full screen. So I have all my colleges here, and then I have the breakdown of expenses, so tuition, fees, room and board, book.
NADWORNY: McKenna's parents aren't helping pay for school. So for her, the money is a huge part of the decision.
HENSLEY: It makes a difference when, like, you're paying yourself. So you have to be extra careful.
NADWORNY: When McKenna did her calculations, she ended up with an option where she pays nothing - Ohio State University. Staying in-state wasn't her first choice, but it's the best option for her.
HENSLEY: I just always wanted to have that out-of-state experience, spread my wings (laughing).
NADWORNY: But, she says, she's the kind of girl that can be amazing anywhere.
HEITZ: Can you say more, what you mean by that?
NADWORNY: Back in Johnny Dang's bedroom, he and Theresa are still on the phone. They, too, have gone through the finances. Penn is giving Johnny more money. But with Rice, his parents say, they can make the finances work.
DANG: Yeah, I'm in, like, a weird situation right now where it's kind of like I know what I'm walking into, but I just, like, don't know what I'm walking away from.
NADWORNY: One minute, Johnny is convinced he'll go to Rice. It's smaller feels, more residential. It's close to home. But then there's Penn, a school he didn't even know he would dream about. Plus, his classmates are pressuring him to pick the Ivy.
DANG: A lot of my friends are just making it sound like if I leave UPenn that's the equivalent of just going to community college.
HEITZ: It's hard to say don't listen to them. But the prestige factor, like all of that stuff sort of neutralizes once you actually step on campus, and then you're, like, real experience begins.
NADWORNY: Theresa pauses, aware, perhaps, of her influence in this moment.
HEITZ: And just so you know, like, I hope you don't feel like I'm trying to sway you one way or another. I do understand that, like, the Ivy pull is really strong, and I just don't want you to feel like you have an obligation to go to Penn just because you got in. Like, you should feel very proud.
NADWORNY: And then, an hour into the call, it happens.
DANG: I think you just, like, convinced me to go to Rice, though.
HEITZ: I think you convinced yourself.
NADWORNY: That was the end of April. Weeks later, I followed up with Johnny. On decision day, did his choice to go to Rice stick?
DANG: My dad went to bed, and then he gave me the credit card and he was like, whenever you're ready. And I logged into the Rice application portal, said yes and paid the deposit.
NADWORNY: I ask him, now that it's all over, how does it feel?
DANG: It feels amazing. And it feels wonderful.
NADWORNY: He'll start orientation - they call it O-Week at Rice - on August 12. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.