Four young women, heads bobbing up and down, are leaning over their desks in Jeff Newman’s 11th grade social studies class at Fashion Industries High School in Manhattan in late March. But instead of peering at historical documents, trying to figure out what were the precipitating causes of the Civil War, they are perusing statistics on three colleges and comparing them according to a list of criteria ranging from total enrollment to percentage of applicants admitted, diversity, tuition, top majors and percentage of students who graduate in six years.

This is all part of Fashion Industries’ APPS program, an initiative that has nothing to do with fashion or technology but everything to do with exposing first-generation college applicants to what college is all about and how to survive when they get there. The acronym stands for Advocating and Preparing for Post-Secondary Readiness. At a school—like the majority of public schools in New York City—where most students would be the first in their family to go to college, the principal and the teachers at Fashion Industries felt they had to do more than simply get kids in to college. “We looked at our numbers,” said principal Daryl Blank, “”We had a 90 percent college admissions rate—better than a lot of schools—but we had a big gap in the numbers who were still enrolled in school six months later. We needed to have a school-wide initiative.”

Fashion Industries is one of many high schools grappling with how to prepare all of their students not only to get accepted into a college but how to navigate the post-secondary world and graduate. The Bloomberg administration established a “college readiness” metric on its school Progress Reports in 2011 after noticing that, despite rising graduation rates, over 70 percent of New York City high-school students who went on to CUNY had to take remedial classes before they could begin their regular college classes.

But college readiness is about more than pure academics. The complex college search process to find a college that is the best fit, the quest for financial aid and preparation for the independence and lack of rigid structure that characterizes college life are a challenge for all students, but especially those whose parents didn't attend college, are immigrants or have few resources. Low-income kids, who are often the first in the family to go to college, may not even have known anyone who has graduated from college.

Because so many of New York City’s students are first-generation college students, high schools have to shoulder the responsibility of raising questions that might be part of normal dinner conversation in middle-class homes. Why go to college? What are the options for college? Which college is for you? How do you decide? What kind of financial aid can you get? And what do you do when you get there?

A lack of guidance

At a time when everyone from President Obama on down has talked about the importance of post-secondary education, in New York City college guidance varies tremendously from school to school. Stuyvesant High School has four college counselors; Brooklyn Tech has two college counselors and another person assigned specifically to help students on scholarship and financial aid. Bronx High School of Science has 12, expecting all of its guidance counselors to do college counseling.

This is not the case at other schools, and particularly at the newer small schools. While small schools were touted during the Bloomberg years as answers to the problems plaguing old-fashioned large high schools, the reduction in size has led to bare-bones staffing. Because a school’s budget is based on the numbers of students it serves, some small schools have one guidance counselor in charge of everything: programming, academic counseling, the special education population—and, perhaps, college guidance. Across the board in New York City, over 50 percent of students have a student-to-guidance counselor ratio of over 250 to 1, according to a 2012 study from former Comptroller John Liu’s office.

At the same time, there is increasing need for college guidance and support. While nationwide college-graduation rates have nearly tripled from 1971 to 2013, there is a strikingly different picture when you break out the numbers by family income,. In 2009, while 82.4 percent of 24-year-olds from families with the top income had four-year degrees, only 8.3 percent of 24-year-olds from the bottom family income tier did. In a competitive New York City economy focused on finance, technology, law and the media, it is even more obvious here than in the rest of the country how necessary a college degree is to survive.

A September 2013 report from the Center for New York City Affairs intensely examined college-readiness and made a number of recommendations, including that the city's Department of Education (DOE) provide each school with a direct budget line for a college counselor, similar to the one for parent coordinators that Bloomberg established. It also called for the DOE to help train staff to find effective partners among the more than 250 community-based non-profits that are now providing college support and advisement services to students around the city. They range from Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Options Center on the upper west side of Manhattan, which has been providing college advisement services since 1986, to newer organizations that have recently tried to fill in the gaps in neighborhoods where schools have dropped the ball. In addition, said the report, the DOE should consider providing a formal curriculum for grades 6 through 12 on career and college planning and guidance “and work to create a ‘college culture’ in the public schools.”

An official with the DOE’s Office of Post-Secondary Readiness disagreed with the idea of focusing on putting a college counselor in every school. “We know lots of schools which have a broader way of approaching it,” she said. “We want to be more strategic. We want to ratchet up the capacity of a multiplicity of adults in schools to do college counseling well.” She said the approaches vary from school to school. “We want to work collaboratively with school staffs to find the right approach.”