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Led by Montclair coach, NJ nonprofit offers free college counseling to low-income students

New Jersey’s brightest high school seniors don’t always have the same tools as its most affluent when it comes to getting into college.

So a local nonprofit, run by a former Princeton University applications reader from Montclair, is trying to help balance the scales a bit.

EdMom Scholars is a new program serving high-achieving and low-income students from North Jersey. Its inaugural group of “scholars” this year includes nine students from Passaic, Morris, Essex and Hudson counties. They’ve been paired with nine private college prep consultants from New Jersey, New York, Florida and Ohio who meet virtually with the students and help guide them through the college admissions process.

“Our goal is to provide students who couldn’t afford it with some of the guidance that privileged kids are getting left, right and center,” said Kate Sonnenberg of Montclair, EdMom’s executive director. She also runs the private KS College Success service.

College “can move you into the middle class. It can have a profound impact on your future,” Sonnenberg, who’s also an attorney and former English teacher, said in an interview. “The kids where that is going to make the biggest amount of change are the kids who are not already in the middle class. They are the kids who often have the least amount of guidance, so that is motivating us.”

The program was founded by attorney and education lobbyist Steve Looney.

EdMom started with this fall’s high school seniors. Participating students receive eight hours of free, one-on-one counseling. The price of such consulting varies depending on the location and on the professional’s experience, Sonnenberg said, but the service might cost $2,000 if students had to pay for it privately.

The program assists in areas such as filling out college applications and financial guidance. Students get help with personal essays, scholarship applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA.

Students chosen as EdMom scholars must demonstrate academic excellence and meet other basic qualifications.

“You would have to be a high-achieving student. I’m not really working with kids who have C’s,” Sonnenberg said. “The kids who we are working with have really beautiful transcripts. There are all A’s, maybe an occasional B or B-plus here or there, and they are the stars of the school.”

They also come from households that typically can’t afford the kind of customized advice and attention that private consultants can offer, she added.

Acceptance into the program depends on the financial status of the student’s family. Students must be eligible for the National School Lunch Program, public housing or similar government assistance programs.

Kiran Seepersad, an EdMom scholar attending East Orange’s STEM Academy, said she has already gotten crucial help from her consultant in Florida.

“Everything she’s been helping me is how to navigate and like keeping me with a good deadline, because I’m trying to get everything done for Early Access,” Seepersad said, referring to programs that let students get an early response to college applications. “And then we go in-depth every session with like my essay or resume activity.”

Seepersad is interested in a career in psychology or journalism and is applying to Columbia University and New York University. She wishes more students could receive the same guidance and support.

“It’s a great opportunity for students, because they are getting the help they need in order to finalize their college requirements and apply to these schools,” Seepersad said. “I feel that everybody needs this direction, because right now in school a lot of seniors are not getting the help I’m getting.”

EdMom can provide the time and help that many high school counselors can’t due to the sheer number of students they have to advise, said Jennifer Martin, Seepersad’s EdMom consultant.

“The average in America right now is about 415 students assigned per counselor,” Martin said. “I don’t take more than 15 to 20 students that are seniors per year. We have a lot more time, like Kiran and I have had time to get to know each other, and I know about her extracurricular activities pretty intimately at this point.”

Searching for colleges can be a difficult journey, and many families aren’t well-educated on how to manage a complicated admissions process, Martin said.

For students whose families are not exposed to college or don’t have the experience, it’s really hard to work your way through that process,” she said. “That type of support is priceless. It changes lives in a way that is very tangible, not just for one generation but for multiple generations.”

Her passion for volunteer work was inspired by her late father, who loved to give back to his community, Martin added.

“He always made donations out of his paper route money, even though his parents did not have enough money to feed their family all the time,” she said. “I feel this is a service playing out what my dad instilled in me.”

EdMom applications for students who will be seniors in the 2023-2024 academic year are officially open. The program’s goal is to expand and recruit up to 20 students around North Jersey who meet its qualifications, Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg has two adult children who also navigated the college admissions journey, graduating recently from Wesleyan and Amherst. Her time as an application reader in Princeton’s admissions office helped her see the personal and academic aspects that students need to stand out.