Reports Call on Schools to Guide Students Into College

By Catherine Gewertz — January 28, 2009 4 min read
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If more students are to thrive in higher education, high schools must not only help them earn good grades in demanding courses, but also step up their work to guide them through the difficult process of choosing and applying to colleges, researchers said last week.

At a panel discussion of two reports on college readiness that were released here Jan. 27, scholars and advisers in the field said raising academic standards, beefing up coursework, and helping students earn good grades are a crucial part of improving high schools, but they aren’t enough.

Many students—even those with good grades—lack the information and support necessary to select good colleges, complete the applications, secure financial aid, and actually enroll. If high schools don’t fill that gap, the panelists said, they risk having their graduates never attend or complete college.

Robin Chait, a co-author of one of the studies, urged policymakers to adopt “a broader vision and definition of [college] readiness” that includes being fully informed about college choices, admissions, and financial aid, as well as passing rigorous courses with good grades and having specific knowledge and skills.

Her report, “Improving Academic Preparation for College: What We Know and How State and Federal Policy Can Help,” calls on federal policymakers to mount a communications campaign to inform educators and the public about the academic and logistical preparation students need to make it from high school to college. It also urges them to support states’ development of college-readiness standards and measurements.

The other study, “Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons From Chicago,” found that inadequate information about college and a daunting financial-aid process could be even bigger stumbling blocks to college for Chicago teenagers than poor academic preparation, low grade point averages, and low scores on college-entrance exams.

Shared Responsibility

Many Chicago students have little help figuring out which colleges to apply to, and are ill-equipped to handle the nuts and bolts of applying, receiving financial aid, and enrolling, according to the study, co-written by three analysts from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“Qualifications are not enough to get students to go on to college,” lead author Jenny Nagaoka said during the panel discussion at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that released both reports as part of its larger policy goal of raising college-completion rates.

Many urban students do not have family members with college-going experience, so they are particularly dependent on adults in their schools to guide them, the consortium’s report says. And they don’t always get that help. The consortium has found that only half the Chicago students who said they aspired to a four-year college degree actually took the steps necessary to enroll.

An important policy aim must be building high schools’ capacity to support students through the college-application and -enrollment process, Ms. Nagaoka said. The college-counseling role must be shared by more adults in high schools, not just the counselors, and it must be systematized to include all students, not just those who “happen to stop by” counselors’ offices, she said.

The consortium researchers expected to find that for many Chicago students, given their poor preparation, grades, and test scores, the greatest barrier to college was being accepted. But the authors found that the picture was more complex.

Some students enroll in two-year colleges or technical-vocational programs. Some never apply. And some of those who apply and are accepted never enroll.

One key predictor of whether accepted students will enroll in college is whether they have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the researchers found. Of the students accepted to colleges, 84 percent of those who had completed the FAFSA enrolled, compared with 55 percent of accepted students who had not completed the FAFSA.

But the “single most consistent predictor” of whether students take steps toward college enrollment is whether they attend high schools with a “college-going culture,” the consortium researchers say.

Derek Canty, the co-founder of the nonprofit organization College Summit and its vice president of alumni and diversity, agreed that more adults in high schools must share counselors’ college-advising role. But the problem, he said on the discussion panel at the Center for American Progress, is that “our teachers aren’t always trained to be college-positive and college-savvy.”

Crucial to building a college-going culture in high schools is developing a shared student attitude that college is the norm and the goal, he said. “The most influential person in a 17-year-old’s life is another 17-year-old,” said Mr. Canty, whose Washington-based organization helps low-income teenagers get into college.

Another report on college readiness, “Bridging the Gap,” issued Jan. 29 by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, finds that while the entire precollegiate pipeline contributes to a lack of readiness, colleges and universities themselves have contributed to the problem. Those institutions, it says, have not been clear about which skills graduating seniors need, and have done a poor job of providing effective remedial studies.

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Reports Call on Schools to Guide Students Into College


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