The Secret to College Access: It's About More Than Grades and Scores

November 7, 2014

What does it take to get into college? Traditionally, the answer has been strong academics: good grades and test scores. The mantra was: If you make the grades, you can get into college.

Increasingly, however, educators realize that the answer is much more complex, especially for traditionally underserved  students – first generation, low-income, minority and those from rural communities.  Today's educators identify a quartet of resources that students need to access, persist and complete post-secondary education:

  • CONTENT KNOWLEDGE: Knowledge in key academic areas; reading, writing and communication skills
  • COGNITIVE SKILLS: Reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, research and evaluation
  • ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIORS: Motivation, persistence, resilience, self-monitoring, time management, self-advocacy
  • COLLEGE KNOWLEDGE AND AWARENESS: Awareness and understanding of post-secondary education options, application and financial aid processes, post-secondary culture and climate.

The latter two categories are gaining increasing attention as we seek to help more underserved  students access postsecondary education.

Students frequently underestimate the difficulty of transitioning to college.   In fact, the process of admissions, matriculation, college-level coursework and the social and emotional changes that accompany the transition to college can be daunting. According to Dan Jones, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, “Many students haven't had the opportunity to struggle.  When they come to college and bad things happen, they haven’t developed resiliency and self-soothing skills."

By integrating social and emotional learning strategies into secondary schools, educators (and parents) can help better prepare students for the changes ahead.

Beyond developing mature attitudes and behaviors, students need to understand the practical mechanics of college-going, for example how to prepare for college, how to apply, how to seek financial aid and so forth. This can be a particular challenge for students whose families do not have a college-going history and whose high schools do not have a strong college-going culture.

For underserved students in particular, "college fit" is a significant issue and a frequent problem is "under-matching" the student and the college.  Undermatching is the idea that many academically talented, low-income students who could succeed at top colleges are not applying to, enrolling in or graduating from them.   Without good guidance and advice, the unprepared student may opt for a college that is easily accessible and seems affordable, only to find that it provides few supports for new or struggling students. Often, a school that seems more expensive can actually be more affordable when financial aid is factored in. And more selective schools frequently provide more student supports and resources.

To help students build the more comprehensive array of resources they will need as they prepare for college, Helios Education Foundation has supported key programs in Arizona and Florida.

College Depot, a program based at the Phoenix Public Library, offers free, comprehensive college planning services for underserved individuals in greater Phoenix. Programs are located in five public library sites throughout the city. College Depot provides year-round workshops covering a range of topics, from college selection to financial aid, as well as peer group discussions and individual counseling.  

Of the College Depot clients who graduated from high school in 2013, 75% enrolled in a postsecondary institution for the fall 2013 semester, compared with 43% of Phoenix Union High School District students, according to Judy Reno, College Depot Director.

In Florida, College for Every Student (CFES) works in public schools -- elementary, middle and high schools -- to help students develop a vision of themselves as college students and gain some of the individual skills needed to be successful. Working in schools with high percentages of low-income students, CFES creates student cohorts and, through peer mentoring, works to raise the aspirations of the students.

CFES focuses on developing three strategies to help students develop:

Mentoring: Fostering academic and personal growth by providing students a supportive relationship with a more experienced individual who can serve as a role model.

Leadership Through Community Service: Instilling an ethic of service and the qualities and skills of leadership through activities that improve the school and community.

Understanding the Pathways to College:  Exposing students to higher education through college visits and interactions with college students and faculty that enable them to become college and financial aid literate and develop a clear understanding of steps to prepare for, gain access to and succeed, in college.

“We know these strategies work,” said Stacy Carlson, Helios vice president and program director, Florida Transition Years. “Our challenge is ensuring that the students who need assistance receive comprehensive support, so that they can be successful over the course of their college experience.”

Category: College and Career Readiness

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