Millions of Americans need good jobs, but millions of high-paying jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the skills and education to do them. President Obama and Governor Romney have debated ways to change this, but much of their discussion has revolved around how to make higher education affordable for students from low-income families.
Well, here’s a newsflash from someone who works with 20,000 such students in low-income urban and rural communities nationwide: Too many of America’s children aren’t worried about the cost of higher education because they can’t even imagine attending college.
If that surprises you, consider how the college search and admissions process happens for children from upper income households.
By 9th grade, these young people are already aware of Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and other factors that lead to college acceptance. In the next year or so, they begin receiving direct mail publications from colleges that target full-paying applicants. Their parents and other family members see higher education as a given, and work closely with them throughout the admissions process to make sure they look as good as possible to prospective colleges.
The situation is starkly different for students from low-income families. Due to economic factors, many attend schools where less may be expected of them. Those who do manage to excel academically are often still confounded by the college entrance process – from taking the SAT or ACT, to understanding how to get financial aid, to being able to visit. Many live in neighborhoods with few adults who attended college, and without direct guidance they can end up destined for low-skilled, low-wage employment for the rest of their lives.
With this in mind, I would argue that aspirations are as important as affordability, and that students who see college as a viable possibility will be far more inclined to do the hard work it takes to get here.
Three key approaches will support these students:
Make college top-of-mind early and often. Common practice is to hold events like “college fairs” for students in high school. That’s too late for students who aren’t academically prepared. A better approach is to get students to participate in events like this when they’re in elementary school, so they start to envision college as a destination early on. Pair them with older student mentors from similar economic circumstances who can consistently reinforce the importance of good grades, and describe their own experiences in preparing for college. Find ways to keep these relationships going year after year. The message: “If I can succeed, so can you.”
Get students involved in leadership activities. Many of the students we work with at College For Every Student face insecurities driven by both economics and personal circumstances, yet all are involved in leadership activities that support their schools and communities. These activities often require them to move beyond their comfort zone, such as speaking publicly or organizing school-wide college awareness events. These activities build discipline and strengthen personal aspirations, leading the students to realize they can improve the lives of others even though they’ve faced significant challenges of their own.
Help them navigate the journey to college. Direct, formal partnerships between K-12 schools and neighboring colleges are another way to keep higher education top-of-mind. One such partnership pairs 200 K-12 schools and 210 colleges in 24 states. The program matches elementary, middle and secondary students with mentors from those colleges, and enables all of the students to spend time on college campuses – an experience that can be downright transformative to students who have never set foot on one. The students also get help from college students and alumni in navigating the maze of application and financial aid forms. The journey from preparation to entrance to graduation is still difficult, but they have the guidance that’s customary for upper-income kids every step of the way.
None of this is particularly complicated, or particularly political. Regardless of what happens in the next 24 hours, both candidates should agree that instilling a desire to go to college is the first step to making it a reality.
Rick Dalton is President and CEO of College For Every Student.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.