Alexandria, LA - Leigh Guidry, education reporter for The Town Talk, wrote a piece about Career Compass and its work in Central Louisiana. Article text is below.

Louisiana students are getting outside help with applying to college, and some of that help starts in middle school.

Career Compass "coaches" have been in Central Louisiana since 2012, helping students apply to post-secondary institutions, and they soon realized that process has to begin before a high-schooler's senior year. The nonprofit began with two founding coaches in Baton Rouge about 10 years ago and has grown to 68 coaches statewide now.

"We are an educational nonprofit with the mission to remove obstacles that keep students from pursuing post-secondary education," said Crystal Burch, director of strategic partnership with the company. "... The need was just so great, it has expanded rapidly across the state."

Coaches meet with high school seniors at lease twice a year to work on college applications, signing up to take the ACT or filling out the FAFSA. They provide access to a computer or Internet to do those things, get fees waived and sometimes cover those costs themselves — like the $5,507 in college application fee waivers Career Compass helped students obtain last year. The group paid $4,019 of those fees last year.

They often partner with guidance counselors in this work. And the help doesn't end when the application is submitted. Coaches have helped students create a budget for after high school or arrange housing.

"The biggest obstacle is just a lack of knowing what options are out there," Burch said, "a lack of knowledge of opportunities and then having the ability and support to fill out applications and pay for them. Sometimes the $40 fee to apply to LSU could be what keeps a kid from applying."

They aren't just helping curb the costs. Coaches help students overcome other obstacles as well, like not focusing on GPA until high school is almost over. That was the case for Davon Jenkins of Pineville.

"In high school, I really didn't know the whole getting-into-college thing," Jenkins said. "I thought it was just about ACT scores, not GPA. ... Junior year, I tried buckling down."

But it was a little late. He graduated with a 1.9 grade point average, below the college requirements.

"I had the required ACT, just didn't have the GPA," he said.

Jenkins also dealt with his dad's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer his senior year. His parents spent much of the year traveling back and forth from Houston for treatment. It made things more difficult but didn't affect his schoolwork too much, Jenkins said.

"We worked with him on getting an application exemption at NSU," Burch said. "We knew he could be successful."

Getting that waiver meant Jenkins and others in his life — his youth pastor, principal, parents and guidance counselor — wrote appeals letters. It was a long process, but worth it when he got accepted. Now he's a freshman social work major at Northwestern State University with a 3.3 GPA.

Another obstacle many of the students face is that they are first-generation college-goers, said Carrie Peña, director of development, and their parents often don't know what they need to do to apply.

"There's a gap in knowledge (of the process) between generations," Peña said.

Burch can relate.

"I was not one of the families with parents who went to college," she said. "I was one of six kids. Times were hard financially. My parents didn't go to college. ... I was clueless. I got TOPS but was done after that. If I'd had this I might have less student loan debt now."

When coaches meet with seniors they create a "college success plan," which refers to any type of college or post-secondary school and is individualized to the student.

"We work one-on-one with every single senior in high school," Burch said. "... We find a good fit for them and then we kind of hold their hand as we walk through (the plan)."

The goal is to provide services free to the family, Peña said. Those services cost $100 per senior, which is covered primarily through philanthropy and higher education partners. Some local school boards chip in, and the majority of funding for services in nine of the 11 Cenla parishes covered comes from the Orchard Foundation and Central Louisiana Technical Community College.

Post-secondary institutions like CLTCC also benefit from this, Peña said.

"We're helping bring students to their doorsteps," she said.

It helps grow college enrollments, which Burch pointed out have been increasing in Cenla over the last few years.

"I like to think we have something to do with it," Burch said.

While catching the seniors is important, Burch said, coaches realized that starting with students their final year of high school was not enough to change a culture. To change students' and families' minds about college, they started an information awareness program for kids as young as sixth grade in some areas.

In Rapides, it is provided for students in eighth to 11th grades. Coaches talk with them about study habits and thinking about their future before they are about to graduate. Now they also help students understand the state's Jump Start initiative and decide if a career diploma is right for them, Burch said.

"We work with those students to teach them what it's about and really provide hope to ones who might otherwise drop out," Burch said.

A new addition to the program is workplace experience coordination, whether virtually or in-person, Burch said. Students are connected with a professional in their field of interest, whether locally and in-person or far away via Skype.

By the numbers

Below are statistics provided by Career Compass and covering the following school districts: Allen, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Grant, LaSalle, Natchitoches, Rapides, Vernon and Winn. This data reflects the end of the 2014-15 school year, which is the most recent year of complete data available.

- Ninety-eight percent of Cenla seniors who completed Career Compass services applied to a post-secondary school that they can successfully complete. This translates to 2,853 students.

- Of those 2,853 seniors:

            - 1,519 (53.2 percent) applied to a four-year university

            - 896 (31.4 percent) applied to community or technical college

            - 174 (6.1 percent) applied out of state

            - 139 (4.9 percent) entered the military

            - 125 (4.4 percent) went into private/proprietary/professional field

- Career Compass helped students obtain $5,507 in college application fee waivers and paid $4,019 in college application fees.

- It helped students secure $31,882 in ACT registration fee waivers and paid $770 in ACT registration fees.

- The company had 9,725 contacts with Cenla seniors in the 2014-15 school year. 

- Career Compass served 8,555 sixth- through 11th-graders with age-appropriate college and career seminars.

In Cenla coaches cover Allen, Avoyelles, Catahoula, Concordia, Grant, LaSalle, Natchitoches, Rapides, Sabine, Vernon and Winn parishes.