Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Matriculate overcomes barriers to advise low-income prospies.
By Chase Cutarelli
Until March of this year, I rarely thought about my college essays. But since I’ve returned home to Ohio, visions of rushed supplements for any institution not located at 116th and Broadway have been flooding my thoughts. I applied to 13 schools, padding my Common App with places I knew wouldn’t work for me. Having an adviser, especially someone at the school I dreamed of attending, would have helped me to apply with greater confidence.
Every year, Matriculate, a nonprofit with a significant presence at Columbia, does just that, reaching out to high-achieving, low-income students to encourage them to consider attending top colleges. Since its inception in 2014, the organization has earned a glowing reputation on the national stage. (Mike Bloomberg listed it as one of his top charities last year.) Many Columbia students have, to varying degrees, Matriculate to thank for helping them land here.
Last month, I spoke with Quinn Simpson, the head advising fellow for Columbia’s chapter of Matriculate. Despite having access to resources during his own college search, Quinn conceded that he likely could have benefited from a Matriculate adviser. “I was very fortunate in my high school education,” he explained. “We had a great college advisor, Ms. Kocian, but in many ways I was on my own. My parents were pretty hands-off in my college application process.” Freshman year, Quinn joined Matriculate as a way to give back. “It was very clear to me that there were systemic inequities in who was able to access a Columbia education, and who was not. And I felt a sense of urgency to do something about that.”
But right now, nobody has access to a traditional college education, and nobody knows what next semester will look like. Will social distancing follow us into autumn? How long can Zoom compensate for derailed university experiences? It’s true that all college students will be affected by the harrowing enigma known as Fall 2020. But those potential first-year students who were already unsure about enrolling in a selective university are especially at risk.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
“One of the major things that keeps students from applying is the sense of uncertainty,” Quinn explained. “College often doesn’t seem like something that is for them. When you take that existing unknown and you further complicate and abstract it with this sort of virtual element so not even the school knows what it is, not even the students going to the school know what it is, how can we turn around and advise our students and tell them that, ‘This will be a good option for you’?” Staring at a screen for hours on end, watching screen-shared videos at 12 frames-per-second, and occasionally getting kicked off a video conference are not strong selling points.
While many of us consider online classes ineffective, meetings between Matriculate advisers and high school students were virtual even before the pandemic—and to great effect. “We have a statistically significant impact on student matriculation,” Quinn noted, “which means that virtual calls like these have force in students’ lives.”
But Matriculate hasn’t fled campus unscathed. Usually, Columbia Matriculate advisers are paired with high school students in waves. The first pairings for this spring occurred on April 10, but not all advisers have been matched with a high school student. “Pairing has been a lot slower than usual this year. Part of that is just because of various things on the back end with getting access to students’ data, but we’re also seeing impacts from COVID-19.”
One of the greatest challenges facing the organization is that talking to someone over Zoom or Skype is no longer anything special for kids right now. “We’re going from being the only virtual thing that our high school fellows are doing to being one of many,” Quinn said. “So we’re competing for attention in lives that are beginning to experience screen fatigue.” This sad reality is making it difficult to predict how many students Matriculate will serve in 2020. “We’ve thrown last year’s numbers out the window in terms of trying to predict how many high school students we’re going to end up with.”
Still, Matriculate’s primary advantage over other advising initiatives—its virtual component—has allowed it to operate with some sense of normalcy, even with fewer advisees. “The great thing about Matriculate is that we are a very nimble organization,” Quinn told me. “I’ve been blown away by our students who literally come from countries all around the world, and all of them have committed to continue advising. We’re really used to operating in a virtual sphere.”
That’s not the case with other organizations. Columbia’s Double Discovery Center (DDC), an in-person advising group of which Quinn is also a member, had a few hurdles in their transition to online mentorship. Quinn explained the process to me: “The students live in Upper Manhattan and come to campus, and everyone comes at the same time. That’s what we were doing on a weekly basis. It’s much harder when the students haven’t been engaged in a virtual relationship from the beginning.” According to him, they’ve nonetheless continued to do an “admirable job.”
Amid their transition from physical gatherings to video chats, groups like DDC have the unique opportunity to transform how they mentor students and perhaps reach more kids in need of advising. “If we continue in this virtual format for a little bit longer, that may be what we see other mentoring initiatives start to move towards,” Quinn explained.
But Matriculate, while functional at the moment, will have to wrestle with its greatest hurdle: digital recruitment. “Our recruitment of advisers was based on a very intensive outreach strategy,” Quinn revealed. “We plastered campus with flyers, we went to club meetings. All of those mechanisms are no longer relevant.” That poses a critical question: how will Matriculate attract new members to keep it afloat?
The prospect of things remaining virtual for some time is now a serious one, and Columbia Matriculate has started to follow as many freshmen as possible on Instagram in the hopes of acquiring new advisers. The stakes might be high for other organizations, but Matriculate cannot function if there are no advisers to help students.
Ruminating on the possibilities going forward, Quinn noted that delayed recruitment could give the group enough time for the COVID-19 pandemic to run its course. “Typically, we like to recruit students very early in the fall, then we train them over winter break, so all of the students waiting to be paired were accepted in September and November 2019. We could recruit in November and December, or do an accelerated training in the spring, in January, February and spring break.”
Matriculate’s internal problems could be detrimental for its advisees. “These students are often from rural environments where there is not a lot of knowledge about applying to college in particular,” Quinn said. “Zoom University is not going to work for these students.” Matriculate advisees need a tangible space to engage with, one that challenges them and promotes success to reach their full potential. When students attend physical universities, they’re pushed to succeed as well, no matter how difficult the school may be. That culture cannot manifest itself if peers are only pixels.
Even with so much up in the air, Quinn remains optimistic. “I trust in the advisers that we have currently to do a great job mentoring their students. We’re just nudging them in a very, very critical way from not applying or attending college to doing that, and that is a huge shift in that student’s life and the life of that student’s family.” Without Matriculate’s intervention, an entire generation of promising students may slip through the cracks.