Have you walked into a classroom of public high school seniors lately? Have you seen the blank looks on their faces when you start talking about options for college? Have you seen the panic in their eyes when you talk about how much college costs? Have you seen the pain in their faces when they tell you that the college counselor at the school has told them that she or he does not have time for them, or that they should only apply to community college or try for a trade school because that is all they will be able to muster?

Have you seen this?

I have. I have met young people all over this city who have not had the opportunity to have anyone lead them in any direction about college. One young woman had been trying to meet with the college counselor in her school since September. The counselor tells her each time that she is busy and to come back later, or she is having lunch or some other excuse. Her family does not have the resources to pay for a private college counselor or an SAT prep. In fact, her family cannot even afford the college application costs or SAT fees. The system does have mechanisms for those who cannot afford application fees. She could get a fee waiver, but she cannot even get the SAT waiver signed or the college application waiver signed because the counselor is always too busy.

This is the story of too many of our children. They are in schools with little or no college guidance. Nationally, public schools average 315 students for every full-time guidance counselor, according to a Department of Education report. A report from City Comptroller Bill Thompson’s office showed four New York City high schools with 1,000 students for each guidance counselor. Some students come from families that have never attended college and or do not even speak English, so they cannot advocate for or guide their children through the application process, so it is up to the schools. But what happens when our schools do not advocate for our children? What happens then?

Our kids get discouraged. They figure that if no one wants to help them, that they do not even deserve to go to college, that it is not for them. The college road is only for “others.” That is not the case; there is a college for everyone; there is a place to grow and thrive and find a path–one just needs guidance to get there. And in today’s economy, succeeding has become far more difficult without higher education. In fact, the average college graduate makes nearly $20,000 more than a high school graduate, according to the Department of Education.

For students and parents, the first rule of thumb is do not take no for an answer when it comes to meeting with a college counselor. Make them make time for you or your child. If the counselor says no, have the student or the parent go to a favorite teacher and ask for help getting to the counselor. If that still does not work, go to the principal for help. Find the person that will get you what you need. You have the right to get support from your institution; they are not doing you a favor.

Next, when you meet with the counselor, have an idea of what you are looking for. Go to the library or a bookstore, or even online, and look at the different college guidebooks. The Princeton Review, Barons and a plethora of others can be found online. There is the College Board website (http://collegesearch.collegeboard.com/search/index.jsp) that helps with a detailed search based upon student’s preferences.

Peterson’s also has a good site that can be a jumping off point (http://www.petersons.com).

Some students may fit better in a small school; others may thrive in a larger institution. Often, schools that are looking to recruit students of color may also have a weekend or other opportunities to visit. E-mail, write or call schools that you have an interest in to see how much they would like to have you or your child as student.

Thirdly, DO NOT get discouraged. If you are finding that no one at school or at home is helping you, go to your church or seek out local organizations working to point young people in the right direction. Talk to your neighbors, try to find the people in our community who have gone to college and ask for their help. Never be afraid to ask for help. This is one of the most important decisions of one’s life, and if you don’t ask for help, then you can’t complain that people did not want to help you.

And for those of you who have gone to school and graduated, and are now successful in your career, we need you to help these young people. They do not have the answers, and the schools are not doing what they should be in terms of helping them find the right college–or in many cases, any college. Give a few minutes or hours to the children you know, because that few minutes might just change their lives.