Professor Omari Simmons featured in winter issue of the Journal of College Admission

Photo of Professor Omari Simmons

Professor Omari Simmons

Professor Omari Simmons discusses “social capital deficit” in the winter 2015 issue of the Journal of College Admission.

It’s been nearly two decades since Omari Scott Simmons founded a small nonprofit to honor the memory of his mother and brother, who died a month apart in the fall of 1995.

Simmons was a law student at the University of Pennsylvania when in their honor be began to organize the Simmons Memorial Foundation, which provides college consulting and mentoring for underrepresented students in southern Delaware. For Simmons, memorializing his mother, an elementary school teacher, and his brother, a recent college graduate, meant working to improve the education system in his home state.

“College mentoring is of personal interest because of my background attending a rural high school where too many talented students simply did not convert their high school achievement into higher education outcomes matching their potential,” Simmons said. “This pattern was particularly acute among students from vulnerable backgrounds.”

Simmons saw that students in Delaware were not alone. Across the country, many successful high school students are not making the leap to colleges and universities. The students often are minorities, from low-income families or the first in their family to consider a post secondary education.

Simmons, now a tenured professor of law at Wake Forest University (NC), calls the problem the “social capital deficit”- the idea being that underserved populations lack the social connections that help other students bridge the gap from high school to college.

“Social capital is valuable in itself, but it also serves as a catalyst because it intersects with other benefits people get- cultural, economic or higher education benefits,” he said. “The idea here is that relationships-with adults, peers, teachers, people who run college access programs- can go a long way to helping those students get information and other benefits. It works out as somewhat a gateway.”

Simmons talks excitedly about the potential to change national policy and quickly rattles off solutions to some of the deficit’s main causes. One of the most obvious, he suggests, would be for schools to hire more counselors. The United States has an average of 460 counselors to one student-almost double the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of 250:1. That’s too little to have much of an effect on a student’s chances at college, according to Simmons.

In addition, a counselor’s duties often involve advising students in other areas of their lives, which, while important, diverts their time and attention from the college application process. Ideally, some of a high school’s counselors should be a part of a college-specific department, he said. They should be active in the school, visible and trained to identify the students who need additional counseling about college- the ones with a social capital deficit.

“The decision itself is perhaps one of the most important decisions [students] make in their lives, but the assistance they get to make it is minimal at best, ” he said. “It’s not a blame game, it’s an institutional issue.  People are stretched in a number of different ways.”

Of course, without increased funding to hire and train counselors, there’s little schools can do. It will take action on the federal level to make this a priority.

“If there’s anything you can take from me, it’s that national reform is necessary,” Simmons said. “Education is an investment. If you educate students for 12 years but don’t provide the guidance so they can make an informed choice about college, you’re not getting the return on investment, on an individual level, government level and a societal level.”

Simmons rejects the idea that students who do well in school academically will automatically go to a college or university and that assistance by counselors and teachers need only be minimal. The idea fails to consider whether students will align with a school that reflects their potential, he said. It also doesn’t reflect the social capital he sees among the nation’s high school students.

“At the end of the day, you want the student to make the choice based on best available information, and that does not appear to be what’s happening.”

But the priorities of politicians don’t have to be a hindrance for the thousands of public school counselors in America, he said. To help students build social capital, counselors should work on increasing their own. They should seek out nonprofits that can benefit their students, network with nearby colleges and universities and look for additional training opportunities for their own careers. They should also stay on top of the latest changes in the admission processes.

“Their work is incredibly important and it has tremendous impact on the future of these students,” he said, “It’s immeasurable. their sacrifices and their input can set in motion a process that catapults students to incredible success.”

One way Simmons has done it in his own work is with the Periphery Pipeline Program. As part of the Simmons Memorial Foundation, the initiative, or 3PI, acts as a bridge between vulnerable students and higher education, providing a mentor for student’s junior and senior years in high school.

The Simmons Memorial Foundation is still going strong today, almost 20 years after it was founded. The foundation offers a range of services including mentoring, college consulting, career seminars, scholarships, and standardized test preparation. To implement these programs, the foundation partners with community organizations, colleges, state education agencies, school districts, standardized test preparation providers, parents and local leaders.

Other initiatives, such as the Carolina College Advising Corps in North Carolina, can offer counselors other places they can direct needy students for help. So can NACAC’s online Directory of College Access & Success Programs.

“Over the years,” Simmons said, “I have learned that there is a fine line between success and mediocrity, and even a minor intervention can have a profound impact on a student’s educational opportunities and trajectory which, in turn, benefits society.”

Read the original article here.