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Bridging the gap from rural high school to top college

Robert Hogan and Penny Collier had not been together since they shared honors in their elementary school's fourth-grade math awards. But the two West Virginians, now living at opposite ends of the state, were brought together again this year by a unique program that seeks out the largely rural state's top high school students and helps them prepare for college.

The two-tiered program, called West Virginia Scholars Academy, aims at bridging what some consider a widening gap between high school and college.

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The first part, the West Virginia Honor Roll, selects up to 100 of the state's 30,000 high school juniors and encourages them, during weekend and summer seminars, to give serious thought to what they want from their college years. College selection is one of the main topics covered, along with education financing, time management, and the pressures and challenges of college life.

In addition, a second program accepts 10 to 15 of the original group into a month-long summer session, where research and writing skills are developed. These students, known as West Virginia Scholars, have a 100-page thesis to their credit by the time they reach the highly competitive colleges many of them choose.

Robert and Penny are participants in both programs. Robert hopes the program will boost his chances of studying engineering at the United States Naval Academy. Penny has set her sights on philosophy and education.

Students from the two programs benefit from special consideration at a list of 36 cooperating colleges that agree to ''leapfrog'' the students past preliminary screening hurdles and to provide financial aid packages. The list includes such schools as Harvard and Carnegie-Mellon Universities and Oberlin and Amherst Colleges. Out of 63 first-year participants, 81 percent were accepted at their first-choice college.

''We wanted to develop something that would provide encouragement to the good student,'' says David Cockley, college coordinator at Woodlands Institute, the private educational organization that began the two programs in 1982. ''In many high schools, academics just aren't rewarded.''

The programs resulted from an in-depth study by the institute that found West Virginia's high school students were generally ill-informed about college admissions. ''We found that the state has a lot of very good students,'' Mr. Cockley says, ''but they weren't getting the needed encouragement to consider strong, competitive colleges.''

The study showed that even the brightest among the state's students tended to select a college according to two basic criteria: what school was closest to home and what school was chosen by a student's social group.

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''West Virginia is a state of many small rural high schools, and they can have a very parochial outlook,'' Cockley says. ''The idea was to find the most promising students across the state and to open them up to all the options that are out there.''

According to a 1979 survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics, 89 percent of West Virginia's college-bound high school graduates chose an in-state college, compared with a national average of 88 percent. (Individual states ranged from a high of 97 percent in California to 65 percent in Nevada and New Hampshire.) But fewer graduating high school students continue on to college in West Virginia: slightly less than one-third, compared with just over half for the United States as a whole.

A three-year foundation grant for the scholars program was provided with the idea that replication would be encouraged in other rural regions and states. ''The hope was that it could be used as a model for other parochial areas around the country,'' says Cockley, adding that the institute already receives inquiries, even though the program's first participants are only freshmen in college now. But another problem the program seeks to mitigate - the erosion of college guidance counseling in the high schools - is receiving attention across the nation.

Research done by the National College Counseling Project found that small rural high schools and large urban ones often have the most limited counseling staff - or none at all - even though their students are among those needing college guidance the most.

Herbert F. Dalton, associate director of admissions at Middlebury College in Vermont and a director of the counseling project, says more-aggressive selling campaigns on the part of colleges are causing an ''information overload'' for increasingly confused students. ''The colleges are sending out much more information,'' says Mr. Dalton, ''but the students are getting less help'' in sorting through it.

The counseling project plans to use further research and interviews with students and guidance counselors to come up with recommendations by next fall for improving college counseling. ''The issue is really to expand horizons,'' says Dalton, ''so high schools can help bring about the best possible match between the student and the college.''

Echoing his sentiments, Cockley says high school counselors' college guidance work has been ''swamped'' by other duties: course selection, career guidance, and ''personal problem'' advice. ''We recognize this and feel our program helps bridge the gap,'' he says.

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