Across the country, young people are anxiously awaiting and excitedly receiving letters and emails from our institutions of higher education telling them that they have been accepted for enrollment and giving them a glimpse of what the future holds. I remember this time during my own senior year and have shared this time repeatedly with the young people I have worked with over the years. It is a remarkable moment in a lifetime.
The problem is that many students never glimpse this future vision and never arrive at this seminal moment. These students are typically low-income (rural and urban). These students are disproportionately students of color. These students come from already failing schools and live in communities that too often lack opportunities for them as well. These students are immigrants and children of immigrants. These young people are caught in a dangerous cycle.
Now, some of you might already be thinking it, and I have heard more times than I can handle, that “all students are not college material.” I agree. But why in 2010 do we accept using such a euphemism to rationalize the exclusion of low-income students and students of color from a pathway to higher education? From a pathway out of poverty? Perhaps it is worth recalling that in 1960 some students were not considered lunch counter material. Shouldn’t all students have a right to educational choice? To determine their own futures and their own pathways with equitable and accurate information and adequate support? To define their own pursuit of happiness?
I worked with students from two low-income, urban comprehensive high schools who in 2004 wanted the answer to these questions. So, they asked more than 400 of their friends and classmates in these two high schools if they actually wanted to go to college. The result was that 91% of students said YES, they did want to go to college. Candidly, I was shocked at this level of aspiration and so were they. Even as these youth and I were pushing against it, we had to some degree internalized the false notion that “these students” had lower aspirations than their peers in other schools. Painfully, we then took a look at the college-going rates and found that only 1 out of 10 entering freshmen would actually make it to post-secondary. This is a stunning and a perfectly horrifying inversion from 90% aspiration to 10% attainment. That’s us failing our students, not our students failing.
Now, this data seems a little dated (and makes me feel a little old), so let’s look at a couple of more recent examples. Another survey for students and by students was just completed by the Mayor’s Youth Council here in Nashville. It surveyed almost 1100 students across every public high school, comprehensive and magnet, alternative learning centers, academies, and a few private schools. 86% of the respondents said that they wanted to attain some sort of 2 or 4 year college degree or professional degree. And, while I obviously don’t have the numbers as to how many of these students will make it across so many different schools, these same students did report that only 23% of them had actually gotten support from a guidance counselor to get there (despite also reporting that they wanted and needed help in the research, application, and financial aid processes). College-going data from around the country tells us that, if they are low-income (which was not asked) and/or students of color (about 60% of the respondents), these aspirations will go unsupported and unachieved.
This is not a Nashville issue alone, nor is it purely urban. I had the opportunity to do some work with a consortium of rural counties in West Tennessee comprising the STEP (Southwest Tennessee Educational Pathways) Initiative. A colleague and I did some research and work with this group to write a brief gap analysis (they already knew the gaps and they were almost everywhere) and to develop a multi-county college access strategy that would legitimately work for such a broad and under-resourced geographic area. Part of the research included a student survey to better understand their level of aspiration, access and understanding. Of 1399 students surveyed across 9 rural West Tennessee schools, 93% reported that they wanted to go to college. We know the reality from other local efforts that the number actually making it to college is closer to perhaps 20-30%. Again, the statistics suggest we are working counter to our students’ aspiration, not capturing it and building on it.
It should be noted that the guidance counselors are not solely to blame here. They are highly trained staff who spend too much of their time counting tests. If you talk to most of them you know they are often as frustrated as the students. They are frustrated they cannot “do their job”. For what they are actually asked to do, “guidance” and “counselor” are too often unfortunate misnomers.
With that being said, we must understand and admit that to do the work and provide the support for many of our students to make it to college, and to do so with equitable choices, requires a full-time staff commitment of college counselors. It is not a percentage of another staff. It is not something we can do when/if we have time around testing and coordinating tests. That won’t cut it.
We also must understand that the “boot-straps” stories that percolate this time of year, while certainly worth celebrating, are stories of young people who have succeeded despite the system, not because of it. We need to celebrate these young people, but not be blinded to the real problem by their individual herculean efforts.
The fact is that, despite many successful programs around the country, the system for supporting low-income, first-generation students to access post-secondary education is broken…on second thought, it is non-existent. And, to make matters worse, the students know it. This gap is a recipe for hopelessness, a crushed vision for the future, a lack of purpose for high school, and a pretty good impetus for dropping out of school.
College access is more than credentialing. It’s about a sense of self, of identity, a sense of purpose, of hope, a pathway out of poverty, and a reason to make good choices along the way. These should be part of the system, not counter to it. These should be opportunities for every student.