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July 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 7

Opening Doors for More Students

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For many low-income students, especially those who are minorities, going to college can seem like an unattainable dream. To counter this assumption, several programs in the United States seek to educate young people and their parents about all the available options and resources.
According to the Education Trust, low-income students are not graduating from college at the same rate as students with higher income status. On its Web site (www2.edtrust.org/edtrust), the Education Trust reports that "low-income students earn bachelor's degrees at one-eighth the rate of high-income students—9 percent versus 75 percent by age 24." For minority students, the situation is equally dire. The National Center for Education Statistics report The Condition of Education 2006 states that in 2005, "64 percent of White 25- to 29-year-olds had completed at least some college, compared with 49 percent of their Black peers and 33 percent of their Hispanic peers."
Those statistics prompted Nicole Farmer Hurd to take action. She realized, "I'll be part of the problem if I'm not part of the solution." When Hurd learned that on average there is only one guidance counselor for every 477 students, she realized that the lack of understanding about how to gain access to higher education was a significant barrier for a lot of students. So, while Hurd was an assistant dean at the University of Virginia, she developed a solution.
Hurd founded the College Guide Program, which placed college graduates with guidance counselors in low-income high schools to educate students about their postsecondary options. She realized that too many high-achieving, low-income students simply were unaware that college was for them, too. Hurd also found that when students meet "real people, who look like them, who have crossed the finish line and actually earned a college degree," they start to believe that college could actually become a reality.
Hurd's program is now known as the National College Advising Corps and is located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program's reach extends well beyond North Carolina, and at least 10 colleges in nine states have statewide advising programs.
Joshua Lerner is one of the Corps' college access advisors at Brown University. He divides his time between Central Falls High School and the Ralph J. Holden Community Center, both in Central Falls, R.I. Lerner conducts after-school SAT classes at the high school, gives workshops on topics such as financial aid, and arranges college visits. He also runs after-school programs for middle school students at the community center.
Lerner notes that his position is designed to support K–12 guidance and school staff, which he finds rewarding—especially when he witnesses the results of their collaboration. For example, when students receive their financial aid packages, Lerner says, "It's an amazing thing. To be there and see [their faces] as they realize that not only have they gotten into college—they can also afford it."
The National College Advising Corps is certainly innovative, but it is also one of several important efforts across the nation striving to get students on track for college as early as middle school.

Taking the Middle Road

  1. Find caring adults who can help;
  2. Take rigorous courses in middle and high school;
  3. Determine the kind of institution that's right for you; and
  4. Secure funding.
"A large percentage of middle school students think they'll go to college, but they aren't sure what steps they need to take to get there," says Keller.
Compounding the problem are parents who haven't been to college and who may not know how to advise their children. KnowHow2GO's interactive Web site (www.knowhow2go.org) also provides students with in-depth information about each step.
"Middle school is a pivotal time for making plans for postsecondary education," agrees Amy Aparicio Clark, a senior staff member at the Education Development Center (EDC). "At ages 11, 12, and 13, kids begin to think more abstractly," she states. "They're trying to figure out who they are, and they're starting to make decisions about who they will be."
Clark directs a project called Postsecondary Access for Latino Middle-Grades Students (PALMS), which is dedicated to increasing the number of Latinos pursuing higher education. School leaders can use the PALMS toolkit to create outreach programs that reflect the culture of their schools and communities.
One of the first schools to implement a PALMS program was Helen Tyson Middle School in Springdale, Ark., a high-poverty school with a large Latino population. Proactive school leaders decided they could use PALMS to familiarize their 6th and 7th grade students with college. The school started a club that provides students with opportunities to attend college tours and to meet professionals who talk with them about the training and experience they will need to get the jobs they want in the future.
Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont, N.Y., is a small, suburban school located in an affluent community on the outskirts of New York City. Although the student body is predominantly white (79 percent), Latino students (14 percent) represent the largest minority group. School leaders there decided to reach out to Latino parents, helping them become more connected to the school and learn more about their children's educational options.
The school started by hiring a bilingual, bicultural liaison who has been able to "bridge the gap" between the school and Latino community, says Clark. They then created a Latino parent organization, Padres Unidos, which has led to even more parental involvement. "Parents have really responded positively," she notes. "Parents are eager to attend workshops on school success and college preparation—they want to do this for their kids."

On a Higher Level

Of course, at the high school level, college preparation is even more intense. It is critical for young people to know "how to prepare themselves for higher education," says Kevin Corcoran, Lumina's communication director. Corcoran notes that students must understand, particularly in high school, that certain rigorous courses prepare them for chosen careers.
Holly Zanville, senior research officer at Lumina, agrees. Even if a student decides to enroll in a community college that has open admissions, he won't be admitted to certain courses unless he'd had "a college-ready curriculum in high school," she says. A student may not be accepted into a nursing program, for example, if he doesn't have the prerequisite learning. The student may then need to take remedial courses, which eats into his college fund and extends the amount of time required to earn a degree or credential. And that, Zanville observes, may adversely affect his motivation to attain the education he needs to become a nurse.

A Better Future for All

College access programs do more than help underrepresented students get into college—they help ensure that the United States remains competitive in a global economy that demands more knowledge workers. Right now, only 40 percent of the U.S. population has a two-or four-year degree, says Corcoran. "We rank 10th in the world this year; next year, we'll probably be 12th," he states. "That focuses a lot of our work. [We ask], how is what we're doing going to increase the overall population that has some college education?"
Clark applauds Lumina's emphasis on degree attainment. "At the beginning of PALMS, we conceptualized access as getting kids to college, but we've taken a different turn. We really mean access and success. We absolutely want kids to get out with their diploma in hand." To not work toward that end is to do a great disservice to the students that all of these programs serve, she asserts. Being inadequately educated "robs people of their dignity," continues Clark. "We need to give students the skills they'll need to get a job that supports a family. A college education is definitely a need for anyone to be a productive citizen."

Additional Resources

  • Access for Success: <LINK URL="http://www.edtrust.org">www.edtrust.org</LINK>

  • KnowHow2Go: <LINK URL="http://www.KnowHow2Go.org">www.KnowHow2Go.org</LINK>

  • Lumina Foundation for Education:<LINK URL="http://www.luminafoundation.org">www.luminafoundation.org</LINK>

  • Postsecondary Access for Latino Middle-Grades Students (PALMS):<LINK URL="http://www.palmsproject.net">www.palmsproject.net</LINK>

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