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Music. Dance. Food. College: LAUSD's First Black College Fair Combined Fun With A Serious Nudge

Three young women wearing face masks stand around an outside table under an awning,  listening to a college recruiter from University of the Pacific.
Beyond pitching her school, University of the Pacific admissions director ChanDra Byrd offers to help students with the college-going process, in general. She says 30-40% of the students she talks to reach out for help. "It's confusing. It's a lot to digest," she said.
(Jill Replogle
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It was a scene unheard of this time last year: Dozens of high schoolers, all wearing protective face coverings, stepped off buses at Los Angeles Southwest College last week for Los Angeles Unified School District's first in-person college and career fair during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was also the district's first ever college fair specifically geared toward Black students. According to federal data, Black students enroll in college at much lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

Educators fear the pandemic will exacerbate these differences. Black student enrollment has dropped 11% since 2019, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That's slightly more than white students and about twice as big a drop as seen for Asian and Latino students.

"During the pandemic, our numbers were really low in terms of students applying for FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], applying to college," said LAUSD District West Superintendent Adaina Brown.

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"I really wanted to change that narrative," Brown said, "and really get in front of these kids, cheer them on, rally behind them."

Cheer and rally they did. The Dorsey High School marching band and cheer team greeted students with a show as they got off their buses and walked toward Southwest College's Little Theater. Inside, Brown told students: "If nobody told you today how beautiful you are, you are beautiful. … And I hope you tell yourselves that every day when you wake up in the morning."

Students nodded to each other, applauding.

Outside, Cardi B played while students walked around talking to recruiters from dozens of public and private colleges. There were also virtual college visits, and workshops to help students fill out financial aid forms and answer the personal insight questions that are part of the University of California application.

Hamilton High School senior Jaylen Durham admitted he came to the college fair for a break from the classroom. "But then they got a college I want to go to," he said, waiving a flyer he picked up, "so I'm like 'God, he looking out.'"

Durham said he wants to study business, and he's working on his UC application, which is due at the end of November.

He said his counselor had been slow in helping him get his transcripts ready. LAUSD high schools generally have one counselor for every 500 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

Other students, though, said they were pleased with the help they've gotten from counselors navigating the college-going process. The LAUSD Board of Education's most recent plan for spending COVID-19 relief funds includes $36 million for college and career readiness, including hiring more college advisors.

Dorsey High Senior Mikiya Gardner said she was happy the fair was happening in person. "I'm not really a fan of the virtual," she said, "the in-person interactions for us really help." Gardner said she's looking at pre-med programs, and considering UCLA or Howard.

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"Don't want to go too far,” she said, laughing, ”but don't wanna be too close."

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.