Fostering a Holistic Path to College

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Next month, thousands of high school students will dash to their mailboxes, looking for college-admissions letters. Some will celebrate; others will be disappointed. But thousands more won't look in their mailboxes at all, because they have not applied to, or in many cases even considered, higher education. Students in the latter group are more likely than their peers to have lower family incomes and education levels, be members of ethnic minorities, or come from immigrant families. While college is not the only pathway to postsecondary success, too many young people are missing out on the chance to even consider the goal and the benefits it can afford.

To address this inequity, a large and growing number of college-readiness services provide middle and high school students with tutoring and academic preparation, financial awareness, and assistance with completing applications. But an important component of the college-readiness equation has been largely overlooked. To set and achieve the goal of a college degree, young people need to be developmentally ready, as well as academically and financially prepared. They need to be interested in and committed to a college-going future and convinced that college is possible for them; to be motivated with clear goals and a sense of self-direction; to get and stay focused and to be tenacious enough to do what it takes, even when the going gets tough.


Young people who have these capacities are more likely than their peers to attend and graduate from college. They are also more likely to sign up for college-readiness programs. This means that many of the young people who most need enrichment and preparation programs do not have the ability or inclination to take advantage of that support. Consider the young man who doesn't explore any of his high school's college-preparation programs because he thinks that "people like me don't go to college." Or the group of students who sit for the SAT as part of a schoolwide requirement, but haven't developed the planning and study skills to prepare for it.

College-readiness efforts can reach more students and achieve greater success by taking a broader focus—what we refer to as a developmental approach. This course of action builds on a wealth of research from such fields as psychology and neuroscience that studies how young people think and behave. Practices and policies must reflect an understanding of young people as individuals and put their needs at the center, in particular their critical need to achieve the delicate balance between independence and a connectedness to others. By helping students build college-going identities, personal motivation, long-term persistence, and self-regulation skills, educators can assist young people in their ability to focus, plan, delay gratification, and develop agency in setting and reaching postsecondary goals. This support is not an alternative to the academic and financial resources that make up current college-preparation practices, but rather their foundation. Advancing this approach will, however, require some shifts in how educators prepare young people for higher education.

"To set and achieve the goal of a college degree, young people need to be developmentally ready, as well as academically and financially prepared."

First: Adults should approach young people as individuals and expand their personal capacities even during the smallest interactions. A counselor who provides students with an opportunity to explore the questions of "Who am I?" and "How does this affect the future I want to create for myself?" can help students form strong, personal college-going identities. A teacher who emphasizes the importance of effort and learning (over achieving for the sake of impressing others) fosters students' internal motivation and endurance for dealing with challenging tasks. A school that embeds planning and other self-regulatory skills into academic courses equips students with the tools to act with agency in the planning of their own futures. These changes can happen in classrooms, in college-access and after-school programs, even in informal interactions in hallways and at sporting events.

Second: Programs and services should be expanded to build nonacademic components of college readiness and success. For example, counselors should help students reflect on why they do or don't see themselves as successful college students. Identity exploration can have an enormous impact on all kinds of adolescent behavior. Early college-awareness programs should help students identify a range of intrinsically meaningful reasons for pursuing college, rather than relying solely on extrinsic factors, such as increased earning potential. Research shows that intrinsic motivation provides students with academic stamina. Educators working in schools or college-preparation initiatives should look to after-school and other youth-serving programs, which have historically taken a more holistic approach to young people, as key partners.

Third: Practitioner training should include knowledge about young people's social, emotional, and personal needs. Practitioners who support college readiness—teachers, counselors, after-school instructors, youth workers, and college-student volunteers—may have significant training and experience, but most lack either specific training in adolescent development or in how to connect such knowledge to college readiness. Graduate training programs and professional-development providers need to devote more time and resources to understanding how adolescents grow and change and how this affects practice.

These shifts in practice and policy will support career exploration and preparedness as well as college readiness. With them in place, along with crucial academic and financial supports, students and their families will be better prepared for all of their postsecondary options and will be able to choose the paths that are right for them. Some students currently not in the college pipeline will likely set college dreams and be fully equipped to reach them. Considering the costs of ever-increasing educational and economic inequality for our society, we all need to see more young people racing to their mailboxes—and finding them full of thick envelopes.

Vol. 31, Issue 24, Pages 22-24

Published in Print: March 14, 2012, as Fostering a Holistic Path to College
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