Heads of schools have begun focusing their attention on the college readiness and success of their students. But that hasn’t always been the case, writes Richard Whitmire, author of The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.
“It’s only within the past few years, as researchers revealed the dismaying college failure rates of first-generation college-goers, that the attention has turned to K-12 school leaders: Shouldn’t they be taking on some of that obligation?” writes Whitmire in an excerpt of his book featured in The 74 Million.
But what is the role for K-12 school leaders in closing the equity gap? How can they support K-12 students’ college achievement—and in particular, high school students who are in the later stages of their education? And how can educators encourage high-achieving, low-income students to apply to competitive colleges and colleges that can support them to graduation?
After all, although more than 25,000 low-income students rank in the top 10% on SAT or ACT test scores every year, hardly any of them go on to apply to selective colleges, according to one 2012 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. And underrepresented students disproportionately enroll in institutions that are unlikely to support them through to graduation, according to EAB research.
One way high schools across the United States are helping close the college access gap among minority and low-income students is through college counseling programs. For instance, EMERGE, a program launched by Teach For America alum Rick Cruz, helps high-achieving first-gen students and students from underserved communities win scholarships to competitive universities through vigorous counseling, as well as SAT prep and college visit support.
“We wanted to create a program that would mirror what private college consultants do for the wealthy, but tailor it to the specific needs of first-generation, low-income students that we had,” explains Cruz.
And the effort has paid off. Ninety-five percent of the students involved in the partnership between EMERGE and Houston Independent School District (HISD) have earned a college degree or are on track to earn one. And more than 80% report having at least a 3.0 GPA. In contrast, before the EMERGE-HISD program launched, just 19 out of every 100 seniors earned a bachelor’s degree within six years and only one-third of Hispanic students enrolled in college in the fall after graduation.
But schools—especially those in small or rural districts that may have tighter budgets—don’t necessarily need to implement programs like EMERGE to support underserved students, according to Cruz. Instead, they can capitalize on the resources they already have.
“[T]here’s nothing to preclude you from identifying a [college success] champion at each campus and getting them excited about this kind of work,” says Cruz. “Essentially, that’s what we did. The success of EMERGE has little to do with our curriculum. It’s not some kind of magical approach. It’s a concerted effort to do something with people who believe they can do it and are willing to work really hard to make it happen.”
Another tactic for K-12 leaders in closing the equity gap is to ensure students base their decision on district- and national-level graduation data, recommends EAB research. For instance, counselors at District of Columbia Public Schools place institutions with a graduation rate above 40% on a “smart college choice” list and institutions with a graduation rate below 40% on a “strong caution” list to guide students toward enrolling in a college or university where they are more likely to succeed.
Milton Hershey School (MHS), a residential private school for students whose family income is 200% below the federal poverty line, takes this practice one step further by forming partnerships with colleges and universities to ensure their alumni are getting the support they need after graduation. For instance, MHS not only helps students identify colleges that have high completion rates, but also compiles a list of the support programs available at each college for underrepresented students. Through MHS’s commitment to ensuring students enroll in colleges dedicated to student success, the school has helped increase persistence rates for its low-income, first-gen alumni (Whitmire, The 74 Million, 4/22).
Read more about K-12's role in college achievement
College admissions officers can help increase diversity in communities and K-12 schools, says one recent Yale law school grad.