Friday, March 23, 2012

Know Before You Go

Recent conversations with several college access programs prompted this post.  My experiences studying the college pathways of students from low-income families have led me to formulate several suggestions for college preparation, and while I plan to write these up in more formal venues in the future, I thought perhaps it's best to begin dissemination now--especially since, in some respects, I think my suggestions are unconventional.

1. There is no one "right" college for you.  Talk about "matching" with a college abounds, and it sort of reminds me of dating advice.  Find the person who is right for you, suited to your skills and temperament, and all will work out. Well, two caveats: first, maybe yes, maybe no.  There are far too many unobservable characteristics of people and colleges to predict success based on observables.  And second, there are many plausible matches-- if one doesn't work, you need to be prepared to try again.  This means that students need to have a healthy sense of possibilities and alternatives, and a framework for evaluating when college is meeting their needs, and when it might be time to transfer.  They need to know how to go about that process, and to not feel ashamed to make the choice to find a new college.   Nearly one in two undergraduates attend more than one institution in pursuit of a degree, and my research with Fabian Pfeffer shows that this is true even among four-year college students.  Transfer is typically in the purview of community colleges, and many universities lack outbound transfer resources-- and will even discourage departure.  Students need to graduate from high school knowing that transfer later might be necessary, and ready to know what to do.

2. You won't do it alone. The normative view of a college student who leaves home, embraces independence, and engages in college life as a fully formed adult is outdated--or perhaps never really existed.  Remarkably, young people are becoming less not more mobile-- and it may not be a terrible thing.  Family ties promote survival, and kinship can mean the difference between starving alone or managing to make it.  Undergraduates in my study are not only receiving support from their family, but also supporting their family emotionally, and by devoting both monetary and non-monetary resources. The trick is finessing how to do this well.  Students need to graduate from high school prepared to discuss with their parents (and other relatives) how they can best stay connected while also getting to focus on their studies.  What do you do when an assignment is due and mom needs you to babysit?  How can you discuss with your parents the amount of your earnings that you can share with them for the rent, while also having enough to buy books?  This requires strong interpersonal skills we have to help young people develop.

3. Shoot for the stars, but don't over-reach. Many programs are focused on helping students aspire to careers in science and engineering, and that message is leading some students to proclaim the intention of becoming such professionals even though high school hasn't quite prepared them. The unintended consequences may be severe.  In one example, I know a student who was rejected from his first choice college-- a public university-- because his application stated a desire to become a physicist.  Yet, while he had excelled in AP Literature and History his senior year, he hadn't gone further than Algebra II in high school.  The university likely denied him because of a sense he wouldn't achieve his goals there-- at least not in four years (one of the unintended consequences of a focus on measuring grad rates?).  While in a better world, he would have been admitted and then apprised of what it would take to achieve that goal, so he could choose a longer time-to-degree or a different path, instead he was denied.  Crushed, he diverted for a community college.  High school students like this one need to ensure their big dreams are either backed up with the right coursework, or counseled to be circumspect in their college applications.

4. It's ok to not know.  Students in my study often speak of fear of failure, of getting bad grades, of being caught not knowing how to answer a question in class. They don't know that professors have much respect for students who can say confidently "I don't know the answer, but I'd sure like to learn."  The cool pose many students adopt when they are unsure alienates professors.  Instead, high school students need to be encouraged to express their concerns, and ask ask ask.  Perhaps this could be modeled for them, and they could practice it in their senior year courses.

5. Always ask twice.  For four years, I have watched students leave college without a degree because of a snafu-- a minor happenstance that felt enormous and real, but could have been resolved by asking for help more than once.  One student left because he thought his misdemeanor conviction meant he could no longer get financial aid- a concern a fellow student confirmed. He needed to ask again at his financial aid office.  Another student left because she was dropped from her program due to low grades, and she thought this meant she was expelled from the entire college.  She waited for the college to call and explain it to her.  I wish that was something we could reasonably expect colleges to do, but right now the orientation and resources simply aren't there.  High school students need to know that when something's wrong, they need to ask- and ask -- and ask.

I hope this proves useful for the many programs and people working to make college success possible for the least likely graduates.  If you have lessons of your own to share, please write in.

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