Between Baltimore's public high schools and four-year college stands a row of hurdles.
The difference between the students who leap successfully and those who do not is not brainpower, say many graduates and a new national study of college-aid programs.
The difference is a powerful combination of preparation, faith and charity -- coming from outside Baltimore's school system rather than from within.
"My ambitions were to be a nurse or a teacher, but I really never thought of going to college," says Jennifer Scott, 18, who graduated in 1993 on the honor roll at Patterson High School.
She nearly didn't apply for college, assuming it would cost too much: She didn't have the $25 to $50 needed for each of the application fees. With her father retired on a fixed income, her mother not working at the time, and other relatives surviving with only high school diplomas, she rationalized, "I don't need it."
Miss Scott's ticket to freshman year at Villa Julie College was a form handed to her by a guidance counselor from CollegeBound, a Baltimore nonprofit agency. The form waived all college application fees, based on her need.
CollegeBound eventually gave her $1,800 toward her $8,200 tuition. It was the final push she needed: She earned a 2.8 grade point average in her first year of classes and had an internship teaching in an elementary school this past semester.
Nationwide, programs such as CollegeBound intercept thousands of bright seniors and shepherd them to college from public school systems that are too overwhelmed, impoverished or inefficient to do the job well.
CollegeBound has awarded more than $1.2 million in grants since 1989. Currently 403 students receive its aid. The agency counsels about 1,600 students a year.
By placing its staff in 16 Baltimore high schools, the nonprofit agency supplements the work of guidance offices and in some ways serves as a safety net. Schools can eliminate guidance counselors to spend their dollars on other services, a side effect of Baltimore's new practice of school-based budget management.
"Students who received CollegeBound services were much more likely to be enrolled in four-year college one year after graduation than students who did not," says Andrew Hahn, associate dean of the Brandeis University Center for Human Resources.
The Brandeis study, commissioned by the civic Baltimore Community Foundation with $567,000 from the Ford Foundation, examined CollegeBound and similar programs in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Columbus, Ohio, and Boston. The study focused on "last-dollar" programs -- those that counsel students first and give financial aid only after the student exhausts other resources.
Some programs, such as Philadelphia's, are part of school-system reform. Others, like CollegeBound, are outside the school systems. Together, they help an estimated 76,000 students.
"College-access programs represent an emerging new field, and very little was known about its effectiveness," Mr. Hahn said.
"What we found is that students who received scholarships from CollegeBound were less likely to drop out of college than their counterparts who did not participate in the program. The grades earned by the students, however, were not likely to be any different."
He recommended that CollegeBound target the city's neighborhood high schools, where researchers found that the students' need for support was much greater than at the city's college-prep schools. Currently the program's counselors work in both types of school.
The agency must reach more young men -- its scholars are primarily female, Mr. Hahn said. And it must consider using its connections and expertise to reform Baltimore high schools, Mr. Hahn said.
In Baltimore, the school system's two-track high school structure makes higher education "a tightly rationed commodity," the report concluded after studying students who graduated in 1993.
Joseph Bowman is one of those helped by CollegeBound.
Mr. Bowman, 18, just finished his freshman year with a 3.8 grade point average in accounting at Howard University and started a summer job at KPMG Peat Marwick. While he obviously has the && right stuff, he couldn't afford college.
"Dream the impossible," he says. He graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1993 with solid math skills, and the school's college-going tradition to buoy him. Yet his mother, Alice Wright, says college did not look feasible by his senior year.
"I really didn't see it," she says. "I knew he wanted to further his education, but I came out of work on disability in 1992, and the money that I had saved on my job I had to draw out. I really didn't see $14,000 or $16,000 coming to him."
Mr. Bowman applied only to Howard, gambling he would get in. Then he turned the hunt for aid into a mission. He received a scholarship from a black professional men's group, a work-study package and grants. His mother got a loan. And he was still short of his goal.
CollegeBound stepped in with a renewable $2,000 grant, putting Mr. Bowman's funding over the top.
Odds are, he would have made it to college without the extra help, he says -- and the Brandeis study confirms that prediction.
But many other Baltimore students who have the ability to get into college, do not, cannot or will not go. Family crises or finances or inadequate preparation thwart them, and some are the top-scoring students at their schools, said CollegeBound counselor Niki Fortunato.
"They think college is beyond their horizon," she said. "It has to do with coming out of a neighborhood into a place where they've never been before, where they are afraid they will fail, where they don't know anybody. And some of their parents tell them they have to work."
Students are sometimes on their own seeking resources and navigating the college application maze.
Richard Wise, now 21, graduated in 1991 from Poly. His college applications were rejected, he says, because he lacked expert help getting them together.
For him, the dream faltered. After graduation, he attended a trade school to study drafting. He found work, but by 1992, his mother was terminally ill, and he stopped working to care for her. A college degree appeared out of the question until a friend -- Miss Scott -- told him about CollegeBound's services last year.
She obtained applications and forms through the program and coached him through the steps she had taken with CollegeBound.
Towson State University's registrar this month lists him as a 4.0 student of marine biology, heading into his second year in the fall.
CollegeBound is a Baltimore nonprofit agency funded by donations and grants.
CollegeBound counselors have offices in 16 city high schools and are available throughout the school year. They supply college applications and funding information and some financial assistance.