preparing every student for college

Pacific Standard, July -2015

Author: Amy Tran 

Even if a traditional four-year university isn't the best option for some students, they'll still benefit from college preparedness courses and training in the public school system.

Thousands of students across the nation graduated from high school last month, but how many of them are ready for college?

Being college-ready means that a high school graduate possesses both the mindset and a combination of skills and knowledge to fully engage in and complete college-level courses. Fewer than 40 percent of high school seniors are deemed ready for college-level work, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In Dallas County, Texas, for example, 83 percent of students graduated high school at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Data from the Texas Education Agency and the Commit! Partnership indicate that, while 62 percent enrolled in college, only 14 percent of the entire graduating class was considered college-ready. To drill deeper, of the Dallas County students who entered college, over 40 percent had to enroll in remedial math and 88 percent of them were unable to complete the course.

Poor college readiness can impact students' futures in very real ways. By 2025, postsecondary education will be required for two-thirds of all jobs in the United States, according to a new study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Postsecondary education can be the best pathway to social mobility and economic security, especially among low-income youth of color. Yet, in 2013, only nine percent of low-income students attained their bachelor's degree, up from six percent in 1970. Looking back at the 2013-14 data for Dallas County, only six percent of African-American and five percent of Latino students graduated high school college-ready; compare those figures to 36 percent of white students.

A study by the ACT suggests that a student's achievement and progress toward college and career readiness can be measured as early as eighth grade and is a stronger indicator than any measure of high school achievement.

So how do we better prepare students for college? One strategy is to focus on them earlier, when they're in middle school.

A study by the ACT suggests that a student's achievement and progress toward college and career readiness can be measured as early as eighth grade and is a stronger indicator than any measure of high school achievement. A study following sixth graders in Philadelphia found that the first year of middle school is a make-or-break year for students. Middle school students who fall off track in areas including grade point average (Ds or below), attendance (90 percent or less), and behavior often enter high school lacking the skills, knowledge, and self-confidence to succeed, at which point intervention may be too late.

And there's plenty additional research to support this. Students who plan early for college are more likely to attend than those who do not, according to Alberto F. Cabrera, a professor of higher education at the University of Maryland. A study by Mesmim Destin and Daphna Oysterman from the Institute of Social Research found that students who learned about college affordability options in the seventh grade had higher expectations for their own future than students who did not learn this information. A policy brief conducted by the National Middle School Association and collaborators found that developing college awareness curriculum in middle school that addresses time management, organizational skills, and study habits is essential and can positively impact student success.

Developing a school-wide college-going culture is also important in increasing college readiness as teachers and peers play critical roles in supporting a student's aspirations. Students are four times more likely to go to college, for example, if most of their friends are also planning to go. Furthermore, activities that expose students to college at a young age, increase their aspirations for their future, and provide supports to help them improve their academics are fundamental to preparing students from low-income backgrounds for postsecondary education.

I have seen this work firsthand as an impact manager with Education Opens Doors in Dallas, Texas. I support a unique college knowledge program in 26 middle school and high school programs called the Roadmap to Success that's taught during in-school hours alongside core curriculum; teachers receive a year-long curriculum package to teach students about the various types of postsecondary education available to them, how to pay for college, and successful study and organizational habits.

In the three years that we have been running the program, we have reached over 10,000 students in the Dallas area and found that the program fosters students' motivation to apply for college, improves their understanding of admissions requirements, and equips them with the skills and tools needed to apply. While our cohorts are still too young to graduate high school, we have already seen our middle school graduates pursue a college-going path by applying to and being admitted to early college, magnet, and private high schools, which often have higher rates of college admission. At one of our middle schools, where the student population is 93 percent low-income and 99 percent students of color, we saw the number of eighth graders admitted to these schools increase from nine to 72 students after just one year.

Middle school interventions are happening elsewhere, too. The federally funded grant program GEAR UP provides grants to states and partnerships to deliver college preparation services at high-poverty middle schools and high schools across the country, for example. Research on early outcomes shows that participating middle school students' and their parents' knowledge of the college admission process grew and there were higher percentages of African-American students taking high-level middle school courses.

Middle school programs like these are not the norm, but they should be. College may not be a fit for every student, but all students deserve the opportunity to become college ready.

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