Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, I rode public transportation past the University of Chicago, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, almost every day. Ironically, I never knew that this esteemed institution even existed until I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at the movies. I suspect countless students in cities across the country are unaware of the world-class schools right in their own backyards, especially if college is not on their radar of future opportunities.
They may be even less aware of the transformative nature and value of a college education.
Some argue that crushing student debt and limited job prospects indicate that a college degree carries less value than vocational school. However, as a first-generation college graduate and current director of college admissions at a non-selective, public high school in Chicago’s south suburbs—where many of the students go on to be first-generation college students—I couldn’t disagree more.
Working at Southland College Prep Charter High School, I’ve seen firsthand how a college education can transform lives, families, and communities—especially for students of color. A college degree can open the door for networking opportunities as well as provide experiences and exposure to concepts and people students wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
Getting accepted to college is only half the battle."
It isn’t enough to prepare students academically; we must also teach them to mentally resist the narrative that they don’t deserve a seat at the nation’s best colleges.
Three years ago, one young man from Southland turned down acceptances to Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Dartmouth to study at Stanford. Now in his final year of computer science, he’s working at Stanford to spread the message in minority communities about pursuing STEM related careers via college. This summer, after working as a paid intern with Google as a programming engineer, he returned back to his own community to meet with students who want to follow in his footsteps. Before he applied to Stanford, no one from our school had ever applied. After he was accepted, no less than 12 seniors applied every year thereafter.
He was not alone in his success. Every senior in my school’s history has been accepted to college, with our roughly 600 graduates amassing more than $150 million dollars in scholarships. Seeing the possibilities, freshman on-track rates have soared to over 92 percent. College persistence rates have averaged near 90 percent. For a non-selective school with a 97 percent African-American population and the majority of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, our students are inspiring the children who will follow them.
These success stories should not be dismissed as outliers. Here are four proven methods to increase college acceptance, enrollment, persistence, and graduation that other schools can incorporate to increase their own success rates:
1. Show students the college experience. While many schools cram the notion of college down the throats of students, most students in underserved communities have never stepped foot on a college campus. Universities can and will help underwrite the costs associated with visiting campus, attending a sporting outing, eating in the dining halls, and talking with current students about the college adventure. With the cost of a few school buses, college can become real and strike a chord in students who are simply going through the motions in high school.
2. Explain why college is transformational. Parents still believe the primary function of college is to ensure their children get a job. But college accomplishes so much more. High schools must demonstrate that colleges provide an opportunity to network and create options and pathways for various types of success. What is more, social scientists have confirmed that higher education attainment means you live longer and earn more. A college degree is also correlated with having a lower likelihood of going to prison, children with higher levels of educational attainment, and increased rate of voting, volunteering, and donating blood. As the former chairman of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute Tim Knowles once remarked, “Those are the measures instrumental to our economy, our democracy, and our social fabric.”
3. Make college counseling a priority. The dismal national school counselor-to-student ratio of 455:1 is nearly double the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s recommended number. My state is the third highest in America, at 686:1. As an enterprise that will often be the largest financial investment of one’s life, college enrollment should come with more guidance. When comparing the disproportionate number of athletic directors and coaches in relation to counselors, the misaligned priorities are crystal clear. We must invest more in counseling services to build a strong foundation for our young people, particularly when the college application and selection process is more complicated and daunting than ever before.
4. Maintain contact. Getting accepted to college is only half the battle. Southland invests resources to maintain contact with our graduates to ensure they succeed in college academically, emotionally, and socially, particularly during their first two years. Every fall we visit graduates at colleges across the country to support and problem-solve with them. Sometimes this means taking the collegians to dinner, a sporting event, or just having a meaningful private chat. We follow up throughout the year with cards and care packages. These are not all budget-busting initiatives, but they can go a long way.
Maintaining contact is also about keeping former students connected with their home community. During the summer, our school hires many alumni to work in various departments, including technology, tutoring, and even grounds and maintenance. And in coming home, their presence inspires others.
As educators our purpose is to ensure that all our graduates succeed in their goals. Taking nothing away from the trade pathway, a college education put our young people on a dynamic path. These gestures in nurturing a college-going culture definitely make a difference.