Two first generation college students having conversation on a desk

Photo by Ana Beatriz Cholo

Social Impact

A Pipeline for First-generation College Students

USC Rossier’s near-peer advising program puts first-generation high school seniors on track for college.

March 02, 2016 Ana Beatriz Cholo

If it weren’t for Jessica Garcia ’13, Kortney Pham would be going to a local community college instead of attending a four-year university. Garcia, an inaugural adviser with the newly formed Southern California College Advising Corps (SCCAC), encouraged Pham to aim higher.

SCCAC places full-time college advisers like Garcia in under-resourced Southern California high schools, at no cost to the schools. It’s a program of the USC Rossier School of Education’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (CERPP).

“I was just planning to stay in the area, go the community college route and transfer,” says Pham, a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam who graduated high school with a 3.95 GPA. “I was scared of venturing out. But Jessica opened up my eyes.” Pham is now a freshman at UC Santa Barbara.

Pham, of Garden Grove, was one of the initial beneficiaries of SCCAC, which strives to improve college outcomes for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.

The advisers go through four weeks of intensive training at USC. They learn how to help students navigate the world of college applications, essay writing, financial aid and ACT/SAT test preparation. Garcia said outreach efforts paid off in 2014: High school students submitted 20 percent more federal financial aid applications than in the previous year.

The program is especially important because many California public schools offer little college counseling—sometimes one counselor handles as many as 950 students, says Jerome “Jerry” Lucido, CERPP’s executive director.

With generous contributions from the national College Advising Corps, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, CTBC Bank and the Los Angeles Scholars Investment Fund, SCCAC has grown from three advisers in 2013–14 to 16 advisers for the 2014–15 school year, serving 16 high schools throughout Los Angeles, Long Beach and Orange County. All the advisers are recent college graduates with backgrounds that are similar to the high school students they work with.

Having a mentor to provide one-on-one help and expertise made all the difference for Pham: “School counselors are always busy. With Jessica, she was always there for you.”