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Opening the Door to College

Alumna creates largest adviser network in the nation

Gerard Gaskin

Nicole Hurd (Grad ’02) was attending UVA as a religious studies graduate student when she began to immerse herself in the letters of St. Katharine Drexel.

A Philadelphia socialite turned education pioneer, Drexel forsook a family fortune to become a nun and a missionary. In 1891 she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which opened more than 200 schools during her lifetime. “She was canonized while I was writing about her,” Nicole Hurd says. “She wrote these incredibly beautiful tracts about lighting the spark in people, making sure people have opportunity and pathways to education.”

While working on her dissertation, Hurd began teaching a study skills course to entering first-year UVA students from low-income families. Drexel’s vision of expanding education to underserved populations had awakened something within her: Hurd saw a path for herself doing the same for students in her own life.

Today, Hurd is founder and CEO of the College Advising Corps, which she built from a small pilot program launched at UVA into the nation’s largest college access program. Her organization, now based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, sends more than 500 recent college graduates on two-year stints as college advisers to more than 160,000 students in underserved high schools around the country. Think Peace Corps or Teach for America, but with a focus on college advising. The advisers are there to be voices in students’ ears, someone to say both “Here’s how this works” and “I believe in you.”

The need for more college advisers is dire. According to the College Advising Corps, the national student-to-guidance counselor ratio is 471 to 1, and the average student spends 20 minutes per year talking to a counselor. That lack of contact particularly affects low-income, first-generation college students, who may lack resources that would help them feel a sense of belonging in a higher-education environment. Roughly a quarter of low-income students who score in the top quartile of standardized tests, for example, never enroll in college.

Hurd learned about the need for more college advisers in 2004, when she was working as an assistant dean at UVA. She saw statistics like these at a meeting with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “I was completely horrified,” she says. “I knew we had pipeline issues, but there was something about the data that blew me away.”

That meeting fizzled when no clear plan of action emerged. But by the time she got to the parking lot, Hurd had conceived a much bolder plan than any they’d discussed. She remarked to a colleague that UVA students were applying to Teach for America and the Peace Corps, each of which was accepting less than 15 percent of applicants.

“Surely if we’re sending our best and brightest to Los Angeles to teach or to Ecuador to do water purification,” she recalls telling her colleague, “we can keep them here in Virginia to do college advising.”

With the support of the Cooke foundation, a cohort of 14 recent UVA graduates piloted her idea in 2005, fanning out to rural Virginia communities where college-going rates were below the state average. After a year’s worth of results, the foundation told her it wanted to invest $10 million to scale the program nationally.

More than 2,500 recent graduates of 24 partner institutions across the country have followed in the footsteps of that first cohort of 14. According to College Advising Corps data, high school seniors who meet Corps advisers are 23 percent more likely to apply to college.

Corps advisers overwhelmingly come from backgrounds similar to those of the students they are trying to reach. In 2015-16, 54 percent were first-generation college students, and two-thirds are people of color. “I always love when I say to a potential recruit, ‘Why do you want to do this work?’” says Hurd, “and they say, ‘Because there was somebody on my left in high school and somebody on my right, and they should’ve been here too, but they weren’t.’”

In the schools where the advisers go, they complement the staff, not replace them. No one, Hurd points out, wants a 22- or 23-year-old coming into a school saying, “I’m here to fix everything.”

Hurd echoes the writings of St. Katharine Drexel. “We talk about grace and humility as our core values,” she says.

“People look at me a little crazy when I say ‘grace and humility’ and not ‘transparency’ or ‘persistence’ or all those other great words that we also are committed to, but if you don’t have grace and humility, this isn’t going to work.”