“We all have dreams for our children, but we don’t know how to help our children reach them.” The grandmother in the impoverished township in South Africa spoke for all the families who had come to the school to be part of a family-engagement project I organized in August. Not unlike families in the United States who are poor or uneducated, these families had largely been written off by educators who felt they had little to offer. But when given a voice, they made it clear that they were committed to the success of their children, and once provided information and resources, they became strong and effective advocates.
Yes, all families do have dreams for their children. But without knowing how to help them, they often watch the dreams fall by the wayside. That’s clear in recent research showing that bright students in this country—many from low-income homes or the first from their families to go to college—drop out of college. The authors of the new book Crossing the Finish Line, refuting conventional wisdom, say that many students are leaving not because college is too tough, but because they chose schools for which they were overqualified.
One factor largely ignored in the discussion of how to reduce this college mismatch, and thus improve college-graduation rates, is the role of families in helping their children navigate the college search. Talk to middle-class parents with a junior or senior in high school and the discussion inevitably turns to what colleges their child is considering and his or her chances of getting in. Yet low-income families are rarely engaged beyond the question of whether the child should go to college (not a given) and what college might be nearby and less expensive.
In my work with low-income and minority families, I find that they are indeed committed to helping their children succeed at the highest level. But they lack the “social capital” to become deeply involved in the college search—the knowledge and experience that would enable them to help their children sort through the myriad college options, find a good match, and then locate available scholarship money.
The role that families play in student success is often undervalued by educators. While educators focus on what happens in the classroom, with some promising results, what happens to children who break through barriers and do achieve when no one has bothered to bring their families along? Some don’t make it to college; others, as this new analysis points out, don’t make it beyond one or two years of college. The dreams of their families and of society remain unfulfilled.
While significant attention, in the media and in schools, is paid to overinvolved “helicopter parents,” the vast majority of parents remain disconnected from their children’s education. Even though research shows that children of engaged families tend to miss few days from school, take more challenging classes, do better on tests, and behave better, educators too often view family involvement as a fluff issue.
Many schools do little to engage parents beyond the old-school one-way information flow, such as back-to-school nights and school newsletters. Outreach to immigrant communities may mean little more than translation of an occasional flier. When families don’t show up to traditional parent functions, which can be intimidating and overwhelming, teachers and administrators assume they simply don’t care. Burying themselves in classroom data, well-meaning school leaders fail to see that families of all backgrounds can indeed become partners in their children’s education. But it requires the school to develop innovative, culturally competent strategies that are tailored to its particular community. Without this inspired outreach, the educators and the students miss out on a critical resource for student lifelong success.
We need to help low-income families understand how to guide their children toward college the way middle-class families do: by encouraging them to choose challenging courses that are relevant to their interests, supporting their involvement in meaningful extracurricular activities, and helping them identify outside experiences that bolster their résumés for a competitive college. Guidance counselors need to meet with families in different neighborhoods, providing culturally sensitive information in different languages. High schools and communities, working collaboratively with colleges, need to provide low-cost campus bus tours so all families can gain the insights that only a personal visit can provide. Schools need to collaborate with trusted community leaders to help families understand that choosing a college is a process that requires family guidance. And you don’t have to be a college graduate to provide that guidance.
If we don’t support all families in their role of guiding their children in preparing for and choosing a college, then we shouldn’t be surprised that some of these young people continue to choose colleges that aren’t a good match. And we’ll continue to scratch our heads about the college-dropout problem. It’s not that all parents don’t have dreams for their children. But only some of them know how to foster and support those dreams.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as Families: The Key to Ending ‘College Mismatch’