When New Town High administrator Robert Murray told the Owings Mills school's guidance counselors that he wanted to achieve a 100 percent college acceptance rate among seniors, he got mixed reactions.
One counselor called the goal "unrealistic," another said "it might be possible," and the last just smiled and said nothing.
"Of course, it is up to the students to choose their own path, whether they go to college, enter into the workplace or join the military," Murray said. "However, they should, at the very least, be accepted to college in order to increase their options as well as give them the opportunity to expand their horizons."
For the second year in a row, all New Town High seniors were accepted to college. And this year, Dulaney High in Timonium, where Murray transferred last summer, achieved the goal as well.
Seniors at both schools are told to apply — and gain admittance — to at least one two- or four-year college, according to Mychael Dickerson, Baltimore County schools spokesman. It is not a requirement, but the schools focus on educating students on the value of a college education.
Not all will continue on that path. About 88 percent of New Town's graduating seniors this year plan to attend college in the fall. About 55 percent will enroll at a four-year college; 45 percent will go to a community college.
At Dulaney, approximately 92 percent are going to college. About 80 percent were accepted to four-year universities and about 20 percent were accepted to two-year colleges.
Ta'ler Robinson, 18, recently graduated from New Town and plans to attend Clark Atlanta University in the fall.
She is the first in her family to attend college and said that knowing her entire class was accepted is empowering.
"I'm looking like the golden child. Everybody is looking at me, like what am I going to do next, because going to college is like a big move," she said.
The program is in line with the Obama administration's goal of having the U.S. rank first in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds. Today, the U.S. ranks 12th.
At the two schools, many seniors were willing to participate but those who were hesitant in applying to college weren't pressured. Instead, they were mentored by teachers, counselors and administrators about the importance of having a "backup plan," Murray said.
"If we as educators, and a school system, truly want students to be college- and career-ready, then we should work to assist students to at least be accepted to college by the time they graduate so that they have the option available to them," he said.
Murray said that many students felt discouraged either because of poor academic performance or finances. Students were encouraged to attend college fairs and financial aid meetings, lessening the fears of pursuing a college career. The school also advertised available scholarships and kept track of college acceptances. No additional funds or grants are part of the initiative, so students pay for their college applications; fee waivers are offered by colleges if a student is eligible.
One key factor was identifying and assisting students who would need support in filling out applications and writing essays. In order to achieve the goal, guidance counselors spoke to students who were uninterested or discouraged because of academic problems, and worked with teachers and administrators to get students tutors when needed.
While many high schools in the Baltimore area work to boost college and career readiness, no other school districts have programs that encourage all seniors to apply to college, according to the school spokespeople.
Education experts have mixed opinions about the initiative.
Andrew Bryan, an educational consultant from Boise, Idaho, said the requirement sends the message that there's only one path to a successful life after high school.
"Imagine a high school required everyone to apply to the military, imagine we're saying everyone in high school ought to have a meeting with a military recruiter," Bryan said. "We don't do that, but we then instead have this idea that everyone ought to apply to a college."
Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based education consultant, said he's noticed some schools implementing similar requirements in lower-income areas over the last several years.
"Encouraging more applications will result in more acceptance and more financial aid offers, which is what will drive the growth of low-income students going to universities, and that's a positive thing," Goodman said. "We all know that statistics show that a very low percent of low-income students end up matriculating, and if more students were in the application pool, and more were getting financial aid offers, then there would be greater numbers of low-income students at our universities."
At New Town, almost 50 percent of the students' family incomes qualified for free or reduced-priced meals in 2014, according to the most recent data from the Maryland State Department of Education; 20 percent qualified at Dulaney.
Murray says the overall message is that "it can be done," no matter the socioeconomic status of a school.
The biggest hurdle to overcome, according to Murray, was the perception of some students that college wasn't an option, either because no one in their family had attended or they thought it was not feasible.
During the last quarter of the school year, a list of students who had not applied or been accepted was identified by counselors and given to Murray. He met with them to help them fill out college applications and to have conversations about their future.
New Town's principal said he was pleased to continue the initiative after Murray transferred to Dulaney last summer.
"We want to ensure that students are prepared for post-secondary life, military or the world of work," Principal Kevin L. Whatley said. "We want students to have a plan A, B and C. This [initiative] gives them options."
Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said the college requirement forces parents and students to discuss the years beyond high school.
"I only see the benefit in personal growth and development in helping students see what can happen beyond high school," Smith said. "The exercise of going through and thinking about your future, going through the questions on the application, you learn a lot about yourself."
Zachary Cohen, 18, who recently graduated from Dulaney, will be attending the Community College of Baltimore County this fall and plans to transfer to Stevenson University in two years.
He believes the program is worthwhile and should continue at the school.
"Nowadays, it's basically impossible to be able to survive in this society without a diploma and without being able to get that level of education," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.