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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

College by Design

Through a creative partnership, Elon University helps high school students in a struggling rural county aim for college.

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In a hallway at Elon University in North Carolina, students mingle during a class break. They add to the class “graffiti wall”—an expanse of purple paper bearing students' signatures, poems, and testimonies. A teenager named Brian leans against the wall and scribbles:Yesterday, I sat on a hill and looked out at everything around me. Chrissy and Juan and I talked about our futures and I was happy. . . . I'm changing faster than I ever thought possible.
Brian is a high school sophomore getting a sense of what the world of college will require of him through a high school–college partnership called Elon Academy. He has one foot in each of two education communities that are working together to create hope.

Struggling High Schools and a Thriving University

In 2006, one of the high schools in Alamance County, North Carolina, was threatened with closure because of low student performance. Many students in other county high schools were also on thin ice academically. One-third of students who entered 9th grade in the county dropped out, and only three-fourths of those who eventually graduated from high school went on for additional education. Alamance County, once a thriving manufacturing center, now offers few jobs for people without higher education. During the past 10 years, the county has seen a dramatic increase in the number of minority students, particularly English language learners, and the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch.
At the same time that county high schools were floundering, nearby Elon University was thriving. Elon University decided that it had a responsibility to address the situation by helping more Alamance students prepare for college. Research indicates that more than 90 percent of low-income students in the United States ages 14 to 16 plan to earn a college degree, but by the time most of those students reach college age, their expectations diminish. Young people who give up on a college education are at a disturbing disadvantage. Their cultural horizons and learning opportunities shrink, and they often end up living in the same poverty in which they were raised.

Reversing the Cycle

Elon wanted to reverse this cycle by establishing positive relationships with low-income students, exposing them to college life and providing them with some of the resources available to their more affluent peers. In June 2006, a team of Elon faculty developed an intensive academic-enrichment and leadership-development program for Alamance County high school students who showed academic promise and financial need and whose families had no history of college attendance.
In fall 2006, we sent letters announcing the establishment of the Elon Academy to more than 2,000 freshmen at six local high schools. One hundred students applied for admission. We reviewed these students' applications, transcripts, and recommendation letters and asked half of them to go through group and individual interviews and submit an essay as further screening. We ultimately chose 26 students to become the first group of “academy scholars.” Each year, we choose a new cohort of approximately 26 rising 10th graders to join the academy. Participation is free, but we ask students to commit for three years.

Features of the Academy

Scholars live on the Elon campus during three successive summers and engage in enrichment experiences at Elon throughout the school year. In summer, they take month-long college-preparatory courses (such as Forensic Math and The Brain: A User's Guide); participate in enrichment workshops and athletic activities; and go on field trips to colleges and cultural sites. This residential experience prepares students for the social challenges of college life, such as separating from family and interacting with a diverse group of new people.
Throughout the school year, we encourage scholars to enroll in challenging classes at their high schools, and if necessary, we provide academic coaching for them. During monthly Saturday sessions at Elon they pursue academic, social, college-planning, and leadership activities. On a typical Saturday, scholars might engage in SAT preparation classes, visit the Elon library to check out materials for school projects, or work in small groups to design service projects.

Engagement, Leadership, and Service Learning

Elon has long focused on providing engaged learning and leadership training for our university students. Student engagement is central to our work with academy scholars as well, and we design activities likely to turn on students' minds. In a class on brain development, students dissect a sheep's brain. Our Civic and Political Engagement course recently culminated in a heated debate over drug laws in the United States.
Because we hope not only to get our scholars into college but also to give them the skills and confidence to bring positive change to their communities, the academy includes a three-year leadership-development program. Scholars volunteer and do internships at community sites. They also work in teams to coordinate special activities. For example, scholars recently planned and hosted a visit to Elon by students from Amidon Elementary School in Washington, D.C. We watch our scholars develop competence in interpersonal relationships, a deeper understanding of the importance of citizenship, and an appreciation for diversity.

College Planning

Low-income students often lack information about colleges and the application process. In addition to teaching summer classes in college planning, Elon's director of multicultural recruitment organizes college visits for scholars and works individually with scholars and their families to ensure that students enroll in high school courses that position them for getting accepted to good universities and gaining scholarships. All of our original 26 scholars, now heading into their junior year, are planning to apply for college and are now narrowing down their preferences.
We involve families in every aspect of students' growth, encouraging parents to join their children for meals and field trips in summer. Feedback from families shapes our programming.

Advocacy and Support

We weave a network of support to help scholars face the challenges they will inevitably meet as they pursue higher learning. Selected Elon undergraduates live in the residence halls during the summer program, mentor scholars, and help teach classes. These college students are role models; scholars go to them when they encounter academic, social, and personal challenges. In each local high school, we have chosen teachers, counselors, principals, and staff members to be “Elon Academy Advocates,” who identify potential participants and support current scholars.

Extending Our Reach

Although the academy serves only a fraction of the students who could benefit from it, we extend the program's influence into the larger community, working with the Alamance-Burlington School System to support college fairs, college tours, and scholarship opportunities for county students. Frequently the lives of people connected to these youth change. For example, the sister of one scholar enjoyed attending events with her brother so much that she applied to Elon and received a full financial aid package. Another scholar's mother is planning to go to college.
To bring excellence into the lives of allyouth, we believe it's important for universities to help students who might not typically consider attending four-year institutions nurture realistic college aspirations. The business world agrees that college graduates need the ability to work effectively with people from different backgrounds. Diversifying our college campuses will enrich everyone's education.
End Notes

1 Pulley, J. (2006, Fall). Front-porch pathfinders. Lumina Foundation Focus, 3–20.

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