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The Maze to the College Doorstep

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My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge.
– Hosea 4:6

A report from Chicago, cited in a March 19 article in the Christian Science Monitor ("Why Good Students Don't Make It to College"), describes a big problem in our secondary schools, and uses big numbers.

In a three-year study, University of Chicago researchers found that 83 percent of Chicago Public School students aspired to a four-year degree, but about 40 percent of those don't even apply to any four-year college. In many instances, these students were the first in their families with college aspirations and lacked the home or school support necessary to face down the daunting college admissions process, including what the Monitor described as "the often-overwhelming Free Application for Federal Student Aid" or FAFSA.

These problems and numbers have names and faces. As a senior English teacher in rural Mississippi Delta high schools for many years, I have seen too many young people who had the potential (and the skills) to be successful in college, but never made it to the college campus. The reasons are as varied as they are troubling.

In every high school I've worked, there was one guidance counselor for 400-600 students. Since the counselor was also the designated building test coordinator, whenever any type of state assessment occurred, the counselor's office became a test-security zone. This took the counselor out of his or her guidance function for huge blocks of time each school year. Add in the required meetings, scheduling hassles, and paperwork demanded of the counselor, and there was precious little time left to actually counsel students.

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What time was available mostly went to serious counseling needs among our high-needs student body. Consequently, getting college planning information out in a timely manner was challenging. Sometimes, all seniors got was a last-minute call during the morning announcements, or a round-up of five or six of the top students just before a scholarship deadline.

Many of my senior students, including some high achievers, never took the college entrance test (the ACT in Mississippi). Most who did take it waited until the second semester of their senior year. Some did not understand why the test mattered; others had not decided whether they would attempt college. Some could not afford the test fee, and the school had run out of fee waivers. One group that we always seemed to have to push to take the ACT were the athletes. I've had so many players argue with me that they really didn't need to take the ACT—'that the colleges really wanted them to play, so the test score didn't matter. They believed their prowess trumped the need to prove academic ability (despite knowing NCAA rules required them to take the exam).

Many students qualified for admission to the nearby historically black college or either of the community colleges that served our county. Unfortunately, they were told by numerous uninformed sources (friends, relatives, even teachers) that these were inferior schools for those who couldn't handle "real" college.

We did have annual College and Career Days with representatives from several colleges in the state. But there was usually more activity around the booths of the military recruiters, especially for Reserves and National Guard. The big lures here were the promises of either training in an employable skill or money for college—promises that were not always kept. More than one of these students would come back later, sometimes in tears, when they learned they were being deployed to a war zone in a foreign country. All they had wanted was a way to afford more education.

One of the best students in my journalism class got accepted at one of the state's private black colleges with a full scholarship into the choral music program. His mother refused to sign any papers and put incredible pressure on him not to go. She had dropped out of school to marry young, only to have her husband leave her with five small boys. This college-bound son was the most dependable and hard-working of all her children. Her great fear was that he would earn a degree and begin to look down on her. She eventually won the battle, and he is now working in a lumber yard.

The Delta has one of the highest adult illiteracy rates in the country (40 percent). It has only been since the early 1970s that black students in the Delta were allowed to attend school for a full year. Prior to that, black schools were mandatorily shut down twice a year for several months, so the students could work the cotton fields with their families. Parents, many of whom have not attended college, are befuddled by the college admission process. One of the most daunting tasks is the completion of the FAFSA, required of all students before financial aid of any type is awarded.

I remember sitting in the school office with the counselor, trying desperately to convince several mothers that their government welfare payments would not be cut off (a common belief) if they completed the financial aid form. Many refused to give the information or sign these forms, effectively keeping their children out of college. It was also common among athletes who were thinking about college to hold off doing any of the admissions or financial aid paperwork because they believed (and with good reason) that the recruiting coach (who had expressed so much interest in them during the playoffs) was going to take care of everything.

Many good ideas have been suggested—and attempts made—to solve these problems of timing, information, and perception. The addition of technology (and part-time clerical help) to counselors' offices has freed them up to do more one-on-one work with students. Giving teachers more up-to-date information about college admissions and required coursework enables them to advise students earlier in their high school careers. Using college students who have effectively navigated the process to come back and mentor aspiring college-goers has also proven to be an effective intervention. One grant program, Jobs for Mississippi Graduates, is attempting to provide high-needs schools with a full-time person whose job is to teach, urge, and assist students as they work through the considerable barriers along the road to higher education. With such a person in place who deeply cares about their futures and has the time to turn that caring into action, we could really improve the numbers. But what happens when the grant ends?

Even with these improvements, the tremendous need for support among students and families with no college-going tradition can easily overwhelm the available resources. Too many of our students never make it through the maze to the college doorstep. Too many will be stacking lumber or going off to war because they made life-altering decisions based on poor information or wrong perceptions.

Everyone may not want or need to attend college, but those who do should be given the opportunity. What are we going to do about it?

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