ACE program helps high school students overcome barriers to college

Four Cornell University students say a unique program that links 14 area school districts with four local colleges and universities helped put them a step ahead of other students when they started their freshman year this fall.

Cornell students Linnea Carter, Chad Higgins, Desiree Snyder and Sam Sibley, as well as 86 others admitted to colleges and universities across the nation this year, were members of the first graduating class of ACE, or Access to College Education. A program initiated by Cornell, Ithaca College, State University of New York at Cortland and Tompkins Cortland Community College, ACE helps academically capable high school students overcome barriers to college education.

"ACE was really helpful. It gave me that little extra understanding of what college is all about," said Higgins, a graduate of Groton High School.

Carter, a Tully High School graduate, agreed. "It introduced me to college life. I wish everyone could do it. I felt like when I first came here I was a step ahead. Like being able to talk to your professors and things. They don't teach you that stuff in high school." ACE helped her hone skills like time management and study skills, she added.

Carter, Higgins and Snyder say they were doing well in school and were considering college when they volunteered for the program at the end of eighth grade. But typically, students facing personal, family, academic or financial barriers to higher education are nominated to the program by teachers, school counselors and parents.

Snyder, also a graduate of Groton High School, summed it up this way: "If you are not planning on going to college, ACE can also help you. Most people do not want to spend their entire lives working for low wages. If you don't try to do your best and seek help now, that will most likely be your fate. ACE can help you with grades if that is your major obstacle. If money is a problem, ACE people can show you how to find scholarships. Overall, ACE gets you thinking about your future, and once you have an idea of what you want, ACE will help you achieve it."

The four colleges pledge guaranteed admission, to at least one of the four institutions, to students who successfully complete the program and receive an ACE recommendation. And while students also receive special consideration for admission to all four institutions, the idea is not to funnel them into those institutions, but rather to make the concept of higher education a reality for them and their families.

"The program is a true community partnership engaging faculty, staff and families from the schools in our region, providing support and encouragement for students and families who previously had not seen college as a viable option," said Katherine Doob, director of the Public Service Center at Cornell and a member of the ACE operating committee since its founding in 1989.

Michele Hughes, a counselor at Groton High School and an ACE liaison, echoes support for the program: "It's terrific because it supports everything I do in my job. There are too few options out there if you don't continue your education."

ACE offers students access to financial aid information, as well as events and programs on the campuses and in the schools. These programs provide skills training, motivation and academic support; support and training for ACE families; access to college resources; college student mentors; college activities, including campus tours, lectures and sporting events; and help in securing financial aid.

A student usually enters the ACE program at the end of eighth grade after discussion with teachers and guidance counselors. In exchange for the ACE recommendation at the conclusion of the program, promise of guaranteed special admission consideration at the four institutions and admission to one upon successful completion of the program, students and their parents sign a commitment letter. The student promises to complete a high school college prep program, maintain at least a B average and participate in ACE programs and activities.

"The program has proved very successful, statistically as well as anecdotally," said Joelle Zimmerman, ACE coordinator. Of the 123 ACE seniors in the first graduating class, 33 percent received the ACE recommendation. Moreover, 90 percent of those receiving the recommendation were accepted to one or more colleges. Of those, 10 are attending an ACE institution.

ACE is unique in several ways, Zimmerman pointed out. First, it's a partnership between four different kinds of higher education institutions that offer a variety of perspectives and a range of options in higher education: an Ivy League research university; a comprehensive private college; a state college of arts and sciences; and a two-year community college.

Also, she said, it's a grassroots investment in the local communities, in local youths and their families. Financial support comes in dollars and services from the four colleges, and the $80,000 annual budget serves approximately 800 students.

Finally, she added, parent involvement is required. Parents are offered workshops on financial aid, admissions and parenting as well as a monthly parent support group.