School has just let out for the day at John A. Johnson Senior High in East St. Paul.
A small group of graduating seniors clusters around sheets of brightly colored paper. They are brainstorming about all the things that could go wrong during their freshman year of college.
"We said being alone or having no support at all, having a bad roommate in a small room, having no money at all, you're dead broke, horrible bathrooms, obnoxious neighbors, stress weight, losing old friends, not yourself anymore, having no satisfaction going to school," student Adreanna Frelix said.
“In America, the best predictor of who goes to a four-year college is whether your parents went to college and how much money your parents earn.”Jim McCorkell, CEO, Admission Possible
"No satisfaction with education. Okay."
Erin Edwards collects their ideas on a white board. She works for Admission Possible, a college readiness program for low-income juniors and seniors. The program targets students whose families earn an average of $25,000 a year.
The students worry about getting lost on campus, who their roommates will be, and gaining the "freshman 15."
They sound like high school seniors everywhere. But for most in this group, thinking about going off to school holds special meaning. Many will be first in their families to go to college.
When they start, most of them have grades averaging B's or below. And they have ACT scores in the bottom 10th percentile.
Jim McCorkell, who struggled financially to get through college himself, launched Admission Possible in 2000. That's because, he said, these are not students who typically get accepted to four-year schools.
"In fact, in America, the best predictor of who goes to a four-year college is whether your parents went to college and how much money your parents earn," McCorkell said.
Nationally, at least 200,000 low-income high school graduates don't go on to college. Studies show that cost is a major factor.
But that's not the only factor. McCorkell said low-income kids can't compete with students who can afford costly test prep and extracurricular activities.
"It's the kind of stuff if you're from a middle class family you take for granted," McCorkell said. "You have a parent saying, 'If you need help we'll send you to Kaplan or Princeton Review for test prep; 'Oh, let's spend the summer between your junior and senior year traveling the country visiting college campuses.' And it is what leads their kids to go on to college."
To level the playing field, Admission Possible combines rigorous test prep with mentorship over two years. Ninety-eight percent of students in the program get admitted to college, most to four-year schools.
Carrie Carroll is Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Augsburg College. The school currently has two dozen Admission Possible freshmen.
She said the school hopes to increase that number because these students tend to excel. She points to the mentorship they receive as a big reason for their success.
"It's not that they don't have the skills or that they don't have the ability, it's that they don't have someone saying, 'This is how you do it, this is what it means to get a college education,' " Carroll said. "So having that voice is all it takes for them to be able to say you know what, this is something I can do."
Augsburg offers additional aid to students who complete programs like Admission Possible. To qualify, they also have to meet high academic standards.
Back at Johnson Senior High, Erin Edwards is going over some financial aid award letters with 17-year old Nico Salas.
"This also looks like an award letter. That's pretty exciting, Nico," she said. "The Pell Grant, and you remember what a grant is?"
"Yeah, you don't have to pay it back, it's kinda like free money," Salas said.
"Absolutely, and work study. So, here's money you'll be working for but it'll go towards your tuition, alright."
Salas is hoping to receive a mix of state, federal and private aid. He's also planning to work while he's in school to help pay the bills. Edwards said the goal is to make sure students get all the aid they're eligible for.
No one in Salas' family has ever gone to college.
"When I always thought of college before it was kind of like just how you see in the movies," Salas said. "Erin taught us a lot about what to expect in college so I think I'm really prepared for it."
He said he definitely feels an added pressure to succeed.
"I want to be the first one to go to college, not just for myself, but for my family, too because I want to set a good example," he said. "I think it just acts as motivation for me because it's something that gets me excited. I think, 'I'm the first one to go to college.' "
Salas has been accepted to his top three schools and is waiting to hear about the financial aid they are offering. He will decide where to go over the next month or so.