College access is essential to the success of K-12 education reform. College access is about creating an educational environment in which students are motivated and inspired to learn, make good choices, and seize opportunity. The college conversation, the hope of opportunity, and the chance to find success beyond high school create meaning and value in high school. If high school is a dead end and not about something after, our students will know it and will treat it that way.
For years, we have invested in programs, strategies, and interventions that have sought to keep kids in school, improve their grades, and ensure their graduation. We have provided tutoring and after school supports, credit recovery and summer school. We have redesigned high schools, created thematic areas of study and have tried smaller class sizes. All of these and myriad others, I believe, are noble efforts and some incremental improvement has come from them. But, to date, none of them has had the transformative effect that we have been looking for because, despite these investments, the overarching vision of K-12 has not really changed.
The functional vision of our schools – if I define it based on 1. what we measure and evaluate, 2. what we invest in, and 3. the nature of how we talk about our work – is really about getting students through the K-12 pipeline. Our ultimate metric in current discourse, after all, is graduation rates. Even as we have shifted our larger social/economic understanding that students need some additional credentialing after high school, we have yet to make the cultural, financial, and programmatic investments necessary for postsecondary success for our students.
So, what would such investments look like? Here are a few thoughts just for starters:
At times, we mistake college access as someone else’s business? But, whose? Who has the knowledge, skills, and time committed to this work? At other times, we assume “we already do that”? But, how can we make this claim without a clear, shared understanding of what college access is?
What we do know is that college access investments are, in fact, investments in transforming K-12 education. Consider the following:
If I am a student merely trying to get through high school with no sense of postsecondary opportunity, why would I invest in extra tutoring or academic support? I just need to pass; I don’t need to excel. If, on the other hand, I have a vision that includes college and I understand what that means and feel supported in that vision, I know I need to understand my class material and work hard to keep my grades up. So, maybe I show up for the tutor. Maybe I ask for help when I am struggling.
If I am a student just trying to keep my head down, stay out of trouble and off the school’s radar so I can graduate without anyone bothering me, why would I seize the opportunity to join a club or take part in a volunteer project? If, however, I know I am building a resume to get myself into college, or exploring new opportunities that might guide my college search, maybe I put forth the extra effort. Maybe that gives me a reason to get involved.
If I know the basic credits required to graduate from high school and that is all anyone has talked to me about, then why would I take the most challenging classes my school has to offer? Why would I take an extra year of math or Spanish? If, on the other hand, I have a vision and know I am preparing for the academic rigor of postsecondary education, maybe I take these classes or challenge myself with Advanced Placement or Dual Enrollment. Perhaps I seek extra help from my teacher or ask what college academics are really like.
College access is about vision. It’s about motivation. It’s about expanding the current context of a student’s life and their educational experiences, which are all too often defined by their present life circumstances. It’s about the possibilities of the future and the student’s ability to break out of his current social, cultural, and economic situations and create an entirely new context for himself. It’s about reinforcing the reason for K-12 education. College access is about increasing student investment and ownership in their K-12 experiences.