Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - Cyprus High School students move between classes on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. A member of the Utah State Board of Regents has proposed placing college advisers in public high schools statewide to help students better prepare for entrance exams and guide them through admissions and financial aid processes.

CEDAR CITY — A member of the Utah State Board of Regents proposed Friday placing college advisers in public high schools statewide to help students better prepare for entrance exams and guide them through admissions and financial aid processes.

Noting that Utah students rank 34th nationwide for college readiness, regent Cristina Ortega proposed that the Utah System of Higher Education adopt a systemwide approach similar to the Utah College Advising Corps.

The initiative is a university-based college access program that reaches out to first-generation college students, students of color and other students who face substantial barriers to going to college.

It uses a “near-peer” approach to college advising, meaning recent college graduates work in high schools both as mentors and role models.

Starting this academic year, the Utah System of Higher Education will send "automatic acceptance letters" to high school seniors statewide to inform them they meet admission requirements of most state colleges and universities. For those who meet the more selective admission requirements, they will be advised that they can be admitted to the University of Utah or Utah State University.

Once that happens, high school counselors will likely be inundated with questions from students who need help taking the next steps. Currently, public school counselors do most of the heavy lifting, advising students how and where to apply to college.

"I don't know if the high school counselors are equipped to handle the large numbers of students we'll have now knowing college is an option. I feel like they're going to be very overwhelmed," Ortega said Friday during the board of regents meeting at Southern Utah University.

Beyond guiding students into post-secondary education, high school counselors are also dealing with students' increasing mental health needs, she said.

The Utah College Advising Corps was launched at the University of Utah with a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. However, advisers direct students into any state college or university that is the best fit for them, said U. President Ruth Watkins.

"The Utah College Advising Corps model really does seem to be effective," she said.

The advisers relate well to students "who maybe don't have someone in their family to be that guide," said Watkins.

Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler said one of the initiatives of the Governor's Education Excellence Commission was to secure funding for college readiness counselors in high school.

"That would have gone into the public education budget. I don't know exactly what happened to it. It did not go anywhere. I don't remember if it was part of the public ed request or exactly what happened," he said.

But Buhler said he would follow up with Gov. Gary Herbert's office.

Even if the initiative was not part of the Utah System of Higher Education budget request to the Utah Legislature, "maybe we can add it as a note to our budget that we fully support it," Buhler said.

Salt Lake Community College President Deneece G. Huftalin said public education's budget process contemplates "a ton of priorities" and this specific initiative may not surface as one of them.

"I wonder if we ought not think about doing something with them so that we're not imposing anything on them. If we asked for the funding and we coordinated it, we would have control of the content. We would probably define college readiness in a more direct way than they would," Huftalin said.

That said, "I don't want to go into public ed without their invitation."

Higher education receives a significant amount of federal funding that enables institutions to go "into pockets of high schools" with large populations of students underrepresented in colleges, but there is a need for greater coordination across the system, she said.

Buhler said he would also raise the proposal with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

Student regent JaKell Larson, a recent graduate of Utah Valley University, said she was reminded of the challenges of applying to college when she applied to graduate school earlier this year.

It can be a complicated process but also one of "intimidation," particularly for high school students, she said.

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Public high school counselors who can help them have heavy workloads and "the numbers (of students) they are able to follow is very, very minimal.

"Then we've got FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) on top of that to be able to afford to go to college," Larson said. "I really do think it needs to be addressed."

The regents directed state higher education staff to report in November on various campus-based initiatives now underway at state colleges and universities intended to recruit students and ease the transition to college as a background for further discussion of the proposal.