Summary: College counseling for low income students plays to a largely absent audience if interventions have not been going on since elementary school.
I looked across the room of fifty or sixty seniors with a pride that had little to do with my own labors, more to do with my simple association with these high quality kids on the cusp of their departure to college. All came from low income families, from which group typically emerge a strong majority of those kids at risk of dropping out of school and of failure to launch a fully independent adult life.
But not these kids.
They were sons and daughters – predominately daughters – of recent immigrant families from Somalia and Mexico, Ukraine and India, as well as of longer term African American and Latino American families not yet entered in the American economic mainstream.
These kids sat before me as beneficiaries of Washington State’s College Bound Scholar program, which promises free tuition to higher ed for those low income students who play the game reasonably well.
A key trick of the program is the enlistment of kids in middle school, in theory before the dangers of dropout start feasting on wayward high school students, and in order to invest them with a sense of themselves as entrants to higher education before academic dysfunction has a chance to undermine that possibility.
You may see where I am going. Though I was counselor to these kids, “college counseling” does not begin in the senior year of high school, nor does it begin when a student enters high school.
I cannot say this too clearly. If we want to bring along to full membership in higher education and school prosperity the low income youth who in the end are those that drag down the almighty national test scores, then we have to engage them before their decline begins. In early childhood education. In elementary school. In middle school.
So it was a number of years before this meeting that the story really starts. In the foregoing scene, I serve as these students’ “college counselor”, along with myriad other hats in my service to them. But their progress toward college originated with the hopes and structure of their parents, and continued with their enrollment in College Bound as early as eighth grade.
In addition, my hope was that multiple classroom presentations each year from ninth grade on would fill in as many blanks as possible, and keep their college drive alive. Though students on their own would visit my office during their high school years, I am not a fan of one shot counseling sessions and felt I could disseminate information and carry on pertinent discussions more efficiently in a classroom group.
The College Bound kids aside, there were likely another one hundred low income kids in their cohort who were not in the room that day, many of whom entered ninth grade with their class, but in various states of academic and credit dysfunction that doomed their readiness for the success the College Bound kids were realizing. Some had already dropped into oblivion – dropped out — when they ran into the adolescent buzz saw that is middle school.
As sons and daughters of those who themselves benefited from higher education, children of the middle and upper classes are reasonably likely to grow up in an environment in which a legacy of school beyond secondary is taken for granted, even expected.
Not such a slam dunk for their lower income brethren.
Such a child’s identity begins with parents who struggle to put bread on the table, because they have lacked education, and in families who suffer to a greater degree an ever evolving variety of problems: family fracture, substance abuse, nutrition issues, sub-par health care, and the liabilities of living in communities where the social fabric is notably frayed or ripped.
“College counseling” for these kids begins with amped up resources – counselors, mentors, teachers – that address the deficits that hamper low income students’ rise to college matriculation.
I am pleased to see a couple of recent articles in the New York Times and the Harvard Education Letter about “college counseling.” In the Times, Elizabeth Harris scratches the surface with a true enough rendering of the labors of overworked college counselors in a relatively selective high school in New York. Ms. Harris correctly depicts the time crunch for counselors who facilitate the process of college application and financial aid in the senior year. However, seen properly, such struggle is the end point of a game in which too many kids have already fallen by the wayside.
Suzanne Bouffard, writing in the Harvard Education Letter, delves more deeply into the earlier secondary years. Together with her colleague at Harvard, Mandy Savitz-Romer, she advocates a host of tools that fill in the personal infrastructure and knowledge base the lack of which consigns low income, first generation college students too often to poor grades and confusion in the face of the inscrutable next step. College Board curricula attempt much the same thing, for example by “exploring” in the seventh grade among other things careers and in the ninth grade “planning” a high school course menu designed to qualify for college entry.
These exercises will serve as portals for some kids who are already primed for college. Many students need more, however.
Savitz-Romer, quoted by Bouffard, finally puts her finger closer to the mark: ”Getting to and succeeding in college is also about having the developmental competencies required to navigate the process – like engagement, motivation, and the ability to overcome setbacks.” She might have added the old favorite corollaries perseverance and deferred gratification. These qualities we know to be central to academic and life success; their dearth cripples the future of too many low income youth.
The good news is these competencies can be taught. For example, Walter Mischel as the innovative psychologist and KIPP charter schools as implementer were profiled in a recent PBS piece on teaching self-control, as an apparently successful example of inculcating this vital skill well before high school entry.
Otherwise, all that fancy college guidance in the senior year of high school plays to an half empty theater.
Savitz-Romer acknowledges much of this need for growth goes begging in an environment resistant to proper funding and characterized by insufficient staffing. More counselors and teachers at all levels strategically placed would have impact as mentors for lost kids who lack personal infrastructure or the mindset to be aspirants to higher education. More teachers because often it is teachers who form the mentor bond day after day in the classroom but who currently have less and less time to do so in the wake of more and more testing. Smaller class sizes would provide some tonic. Savitz-Romer also acknowledges the worth of programs supplementary to those in the schoolhouse such as “college access programs, college outreach programs, and business and community initiatives such as mentoring.” These latter efforts so far are piecemeal in the broad context of American schools and kids.
If we simply invest in more “college counseling” in the later high school years, we will be advising low income kids whose early experience has not built the world view of themselves in higher education, and whose consequent academic investment leaves their skill level well below that needed for the next level.
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