My Two Cents: Putting Kids On The College Track

My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Joseph HawkinsI first learned about CollegeTracks, a Bethesda college counseling and access program for non-traditional students, when Bethesda Magazine ran profiles of 60 county nonprofits several years ago.

I thought about donating to CollegeTracks, but noticed their website posted no financials. As a pretty solid rule, I never donate to organizations unless I first see financials. On a whim, I emailed CollegeTracks and said I’d likely donate if I could see more information. Nancy Leopold, CollegeTracks’ executive director, responded almost instantly and shared financials without hesitation.

And so after reading a little more about CollegeTracks, I made a donation. And since it is a Bethesda organization, I’m now committed annually to making a donation.

CollegeTracks operates in two Montgomery County high schools, Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School and Wheaton High School. From what I can tell, the goal is two-fold:

Help non-traditional students through the college application process (get them in college), and provide support to these non-traditional students so that they matriculate (get them out of college with a degree).

Non-traditional students can be first-generation-to-college, minority, immigrant, or low-to-moderate income.  Generally, these students and their families, need a lot more assistance getting through the college application process, and once in, more help getting through the undergraduate experience.

As a researcher for a major Rockville-based social science research firm, I have studied non-traditional college attendees and know firsthand that programs like CollegeTracks provide a tremendous service.

When I agreed to take on this column, I put Nancy Leopold on my short list of Bethesdians to interview. Recently, we chatted via email. My questions and her answers appear after the jump.

JH: You started CollegeTracks because “ … EVERY child who graduates from a Montgomery County Public School DESERVES the opportunity to go to college or technical school.”  What are three or four things that stop some MCPS graduates now from going to college?

NL: Though they attend one of the best public school systems in the nation, they are not getting to higher education because they don’t know how to complete the many complicated tasks required to apply, get financial aid, and enroll.

  1. The CollegeTracks program model is based on research showing that significant numbers of low-income students fail to successfully achieve the many milestones required in the admissions process, fail to identify colleges that meet their abilities and interests, and do not apply to enough colleges.
  2. Many low-income students in this county and nationwide do not submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the tax-like document required to get federal, state, and most institutional financial aid. Many do not know about other sources of state financial aid and scholarships which also require applications. Without this aid, most low-income students can only afford be part-time students at local community colleges. Most such students do get certificates or associates degrees or transfer
  3. Some students are admitted to college but fail to enroll. This “summer melt” is greatest at two-year colleges (as high as 40%). Research and our experience show that some students have trouble with the complicated requirements of course placement, course registration, and finalizing financial aid.

All of these problems occur because low-income students simply don’t know any adults with the knowledge and time to help them get through the college admission, financial aid, and enrollment process.

JH:  Without criticizing MCPS — that is not the point of the question — why is it that some MCPS students do not match up well with the traditional college counseling services offered in our high schools?

NL:  MCPS school counselors, each responsible for the academic and psychosocial needs of 300 plus students, have neither the time nor expertise to deliver the intensive help needed by students completely unfamiliar with the vagaries of American higher ed admissions and financial aid. There also are no resources at MCPS schools and few in the community to help families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA).

JH:  CollegeTracks was established in 2002, and you just celebrated its 10-year anniversary.  What stands out in your mind as your biggest accomplishment?

NL: In the beginning, we were all volunteers, learning together, working with about 50 B-CC seniors each year.

Ten years later, 12 paid CollegeTracks staff members will work with more than 70 volunteers this year to serve 600 high school juniors and seniors at Wheaton and B-CC High Schools, as well as 230 college students. We’ve had the privilege to serve more than 2,300 students to date. Now, CollegeTracks has a proven model, a diverse network of supporters from county government, business, foundations, and individuals, and a core of dedicated staff and volunteers. We are ready to expand to more county high schools to serve more of the thousands of students who need it.

JH:  Tell me about a few of your success stories — graduates who you provided services to and ended up graduating from college, and why you think these graduates did well?

NL:  Oscar Portillo, whose story can be seen in a video on our website, came at age 15 from rural El Salvador. With the help of many people at Wheaton HS, Oscar was admitted to Middlebury College.  He graduated in 2013 and is now teaching English in China.

Bertha Flores started part-time at Montgomery College, transferred to Dickinson College, and now works as a legislative aide for recent Councilmember Nancy Navarro.

Biniam Abebe, a B-CC HS graduate, went to Bowie State University and then transferred to the University of Maryland-College Park. Now he works as a paralegal at a Bethesda law firm and he has been a valued member of the CollegeTracks Board for two years.

They and the many other successful CollegeTracks alums were determined to get to college, sought help from CollegeTracks and others, completed the critical milestones, went to college and sought support there to make sure they succeeded.

JH:  Recently, Michelle Obama launched an effort to encourage more low-income students to attend college. If you could sit with the first lady, over coffee or tea, and you could twist her arm to help CollegeTracks and other ‘CollegeTrack-like programs,’ what would be on your wish list?

NL:  We are delighted that Mrs. Obama has chosen college access and success as her next cause. CollegeTracks is one of many organizations around the country doing this work. But collectively we touch a fraction of the students who need this help. I would urge her to use her “bully pulpit” to push for federal, state, and local monies to fund expansion of programs that work, especially ones that work in the high schools in collaboration with and as a complement to the academic and college counseling services already there.

Joseph Hawkins is a longtime Bethesda resident who remembers when there was no Capital Crescent Trail. He works full-time for an employee-owned social science research firm located Montgomery County. He is a D.C. native and for nearly 10 years, he wrote a regular column for the Montgomery Journal. He also has essays and editorials published in Education Week, the Washington Post, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He is a serious live music fan and is committed to checking out some live act at least once a month.

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