Expanding the Future for All Students

We're currently in the midst of college acceptance and decision season--something I'm all too aware of, as a high school counselor. It's both an exciting and stressful time for many students, as they receive their acceptance letters and financial aid offers, and begin making decisions that will potentially impact the rest of their lives.

However, in the communities I serve in Los Angeles, going to college is not a foregone conclusion. Based on our Class of 2015 graduate data, 64% of our students committed to some kind of post-secondary education program, but this is not the norm. Nationally, data shows that the number of low-income students enrolling in college directly out of high school is dropping, falling from 56 percent in 2008 to 46 percent in 2013. This 10-point drop is much greater than the declines among other types of students, and is particularly worrisome given the overall employment trends: by 2020, 65% of jobs will require some kind of college training or degree.

My title is technically Director of College Access and Financial Aid Strategies, and I take my responsibility of creating a college-going culture very seriously. For the last 3 years, I have helped PUC College Counselors across Los Angeles help our students at PUC Schools explore their post-graduation options, and I've seen many success stories. However, creating a college-going culture isn't easy. Most of our students are among the first in their families to go to college, and many have never considered institutions beyond their local community college and state schools. Their parents are frequently (and understandably!) unfamiliar with the college application and financial aid process, which can be confusing even for parents who have gone through it themselves. We have begun using a variety of tactics, from technology platforms to overnight college visits, to help both students and parents explore the entire range of post-secondary options as well as to connect the dots between their interests, life goals, and post-high school path.

In my years of working with students, I have seen time and time again that the geographically closest school is not always the best match for a student. However, the idea of leaving home to attend college can be scary, especially for students from tight-knit families who have never spent time away from home. It's also scary for parents. Some of our parents worry about their child leaving home to attend college. Many of our students have never left the neighborhoods around their school in LA: some have never ventured the hour to the Santa Monica pier, and many have never spent a night away from home. In order to encourage our students to think more broadly about their options, we organized overnight tours, one for juniors to visit northern California colleges and one for sophomores to visit southern California colleges. We have to prep our students on what to pack for overnight trips, since many had no frame of reference for what to bring, since they had never taken an overnight trip before, and never been away from their family.

While in-person visits are fantastic, we can't possibly take our students to every college or know the intricate college details about each college or university across the country. That's why we use an online college exploration tool (called Naviance) to help our students broaden their horizon and empower them with important information when it comes to finding their post-secondary matches. Among many other things, Naviance allows our students to see where other alumni of PUC, with similar grades and test scores, have gone on to college. Being able to see where their peers from previous graduating classes were admitted to college inspires our students: suddenly these schools, which may have seemed out of reach or impossibly far away, seem like feasible options for them. The platform also allows students to see which institutions are interested in students like them, helping students to find a good college match. Research shows that students who "undermatch"--who go to a less selective college than they could have attended based on their academic credentials--are less engaged in college and have lower graduation rates than their peers who attend more-selective institutions. In addition to making students aware of all of their options, I work to help students understand where they fit academically, as well as what financial aid options exist for them, to ensure they attend a school where they will thrive and succeed.

While encouraging students to think beyond their local college is important, it is just the first step. To find the best post-secondary option for each student, we work with them to understand what their interests and goals are, what career options and majors they might explore, and what type of school might get them there.

I vividly remember one student who told me that he wanted to cure cancer, and therefore planned to major in physics. That's why we help our students to identify a relevant course of study and find the right college that offers those courses. For students who aren't sure what they want to do after high school, digital inventories and assessments can help them to identify their strengths and interests, and explore what kinds of careers might fit well. Online video libraries allow students to watch interviews with professionals in fields they may not even know existed. All of these tools help students to make the connection between college, major, and life goals, and help to contextualize their college search.

There has been a huge emphasis nationally on ensuring that every student has the opportunity and preparation necessary to attend college. While I agree with this, I'd add a corollary point: each student should also have the opportunity to attend the college that is the best match for them. Finding the right next step--whether it be a two-year, four-year, or certificate program--is important. Schools need to utilize every possible tool, from technology platforms to in-person support, to help students make the best choices for life after high school.