At this moment of educational chaos, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, students, their families, and others contemplating applying, enrolling, or returning to college are questioning its value. I have more than 20 years of work experience in college advising, and most of those years I have spent co-creating roadmaps to meet the highest academic potential of students from the lowest income backgrounds. The goal has always been the same: planning a college life that would result in a college graduate with a wide array of educational experiences that would rival any student with a lifetime of resources. My goal in meeting the highest potential of my students is to make it possible for them to demonstrate their resilience, dedication, talents, skills, intellectual prowess, and diverse perspectives in a world that oftentimes has questioned whether they should even pursue a college education.
Today and for the foreseeable future, prospective, incoming, and current students are navigating a sea of uncertainty, with waves of misinformation and islands of compounding confusion and paralyzing fear. For many, the slowing economy and potential exposure to COVID-19 in academic environments have added multiple layers to the question, is college for me? A college education is one of the most dependable lifesavers that help make the path to economic mobility more attainable. The pursuit of a college degree can be seen as a distraction when we are all seeking a sense of security, safety, and assurance that any investment of time, emotion, and finances will meet our present crisis.Unfortunately, this makes the long-term gains of a college education feel like an unnecessary or ineffective solution to the problems we are facing as we all fight for our survival.
The data shows that,, now more than ever, that those with a college education are more likely to survive the rough seas ahead. Changing course or derailing plans to apply, attend, or graduate right now can make a student more vulnerable to economic fluctuations and as we face crises of our times and take on future global challenges. This is not the time to side step on your education. This is a time to march on towards it. The fact is that those with a college degree are faring much better than those without a college education. Based on last month’s unemployment numbers reported by the U.S. Department Department of Labor, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an employment rate of 10.2% with 16.3 million Americans out of work; here are the July 2020 unemployment rates by education level:
- Less than high school diploma: 15.4%
- High school graduates, no college: 10.8%
- Some college or associate’s degree: 10.0%
- Bachelor’s degree or higher: 6.7%
Many companies have switched to remote work. Only 12% of adults with just a high school degree can work from home, compared to almost 52% of those with a college education. This isn’t the time for colleges, scholarship programs, nonprofit organizations, and the government to stop investing in getting more students into college and ready to deal with the aftermath of this pandemic, including social unrest, racial injustice, governmental instability, climate issues, and global discord. This is the time to reconsider the consequences of making a college education a privilege. In fact, it is time to insist on taking actionable steps to make a college education more accessible.
For students with ample resources and those that have been exposed to an educational system that assumes that a college education is for everyone, it becomes obvious that every institution serves that assumption, which is usually supported by financial support that includes extracurricular activities, college preparation, career exposure from birth. The communities that surround these students become what I would term a “college prep village.” There is a shared consciousness, cultural awareness, familial language, financial products, expert services, testing preparation, and an army of people all working to make sure that each year of education, after-school activities, and weekends prepare that student for college life.
In the absence of financial resources, many first-generation students and many of those attending underserved schools, the question “is college for you?” is more likely to echo in minds, policies, and discussions, especially as they face scarcity each step of the way. The desire to attend college or to have your child attend college are present and alive in first-generation and low income households. This is why we must build a “college prep village” where we embrace each child and commit resources to ensuring that going to college is a real choice that is ever present in the educational development of every child and everyone involved in that child’s life. When the time comes to apply, that that student is taken seriously.
Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) is an excellent example of a “college prep village” where each student is embraced as being high potential. DSF implements a comprehensive, three-part approach to student success, uniquely focused on working with all students—especially those who are historically under-represented in postsecondary institutions of higher education—to and through college completion and prepared for financially self-sustaining careers. As noted by Lorii Rabinowitz, CEO of DSF, “I can’t think of a more important time, given everything that’s going on in the world right now, to celebrate all students’ potential and achievement. This year, the number of DSF Scholarship finalists exceeded last year’s total which, in the current climate, is especially extraordinary. Our students’ tenacity and persistence to pursue their dreams to go to, and succeed in, college is incredibly inspiring, at a time when many students across the country are taking a gap year, or choosing not to go to college at all.” There is nothing naive about their assertion that all students have potential. DSF helps students navigate systems that were not built with them in mind. Each year, DSF works with over 7,500 students from ninth grade through college graduation providing comprehensive college access, scholarship, and college success services. Their direct approach indicates a commitment to confronting the disproportionate ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, associated economic downturn and accompanying unemployment, and the obvious social justice issues affecting historically marginalized communities of color.
When an organization like DSF affirms that every student has potential and is deserving of academic investment, scholarship recognition, and engagement in the college advising process, it must not do so with rose-colored glasses. Actually, the organization has to accept the responsibility that comes with building a village. It must identify the needs, create the environment and engage the student in establishing goals and working consistently each day to fulfill them. This partnership between the students, their families, the school personnel and faculty, the DSF college advisors and the surrounding community creates an environment of mutual accountability.
The moment that schools closed in March, DSF’s college advisors started reaching out to their students. While the journey to college was a focus, it became clear that to maintain student engagement they also had to help students find resources to address food insecurity, COVID-19 health issues, unemployment, lack of technology in the home, etc.
Yes, a college education can certainly lead to greater financial success for individuals and families. That college educated student will likely give their talents to grow the bottomline of companies and the effectiveness of the same organizations, government, non-profits, and educational institutions that are part of the village. By insisting on meeting the highest potential of everyone in this system, we ensure that future challenges will be met by a diverse army of scientists, educators, medical professionals, public health officials, elected officials, journalists, artists, etc. We need an educated populus more than ever.
With the challenges ahead, especially around distance learning and the lack of community space sharing that is part of most educational institutions, we must still meet the challenges we face now. As we all look to build a village, here is some advice from the Denver Scholarship Foundation:
How can I build a stronger relationship with a student to support their goals?
- Build trust by being a reliable source of support for the student. Seek to understand the student’s “why” by encouraging them to articulate their interests, skills, financial goals, values, and a vision for their future life. In the student-advisor relationship, the advisor should acknowledge the student’s individuality by listening and constantly adapting guidance based on what they hear.
- Set a mutual agreement of roles. Advisors support learning and exploration, and students agree to participate and follow-up as a pathway explorer and potential college goer/completer.
- Prove your value by holding yourself and students accountable. Many students have grown accustomed to people not keeping their word. Advisors can prove they believe in the student’s work and the value of education by holding students and themselves accountable. If you commit to an appointment with a student in order to accomplish a task, you must follow through. Examples include a conversation you committed to having, a call home to their parents, or a message to a teacher. Over time, these examples prove to the student that you are trustworthy and committed to their goals.
- Celebrate the process, not just the results. Students may put effort into lots of opportunities, but many may not pan out. An advisor should convey the message that the work put in is invaluable. Celebrate and affirm the work all students put in, not just the students that are rewarded by being admitted or being awarded a scholarship. Help students develop self-confidence and a growth mindset by affirming the power of going somewhere even though they are not there yet.
How to prepare and educate parents for the financial aid and college application process to dispel fears?
- No binding agreements. Reinforce to parents—especially parents of first-generation college applicants—that applying for admission and financial aid DOES NOT bind or commit the student to enrolling at an institution or college.
- Show value. It is important for the parent to see the connection and value of how a postsecondary education will enrich the life of the student and larger family through connection to career pathways, income potential, social capital, and literacy, and a new pathway for future generations of the family.
- Discuss financial implications. Explore the nuances of return on investment from the lenses of time and potential student debt. While the financial investment in postsecondary education can be intimidating, it is important to emphasize that a certificate or degree allows for a financially secure future and can enable a comfortable repayment if student debt is necessary.
- Give time. Provide varied opportunities for parents to ask questions, engage in the process and learn. These opportunities can take the form of daytime and evening in person meetings, group workshops, 1:1 sessions, videos, written materials, and information in multiple languages or with translation available.
Parent/guardian support is critical during the financial aid process. Support needs to extend from students to the parents.
What are useful ways to engage parents in the college application process?
- Educate parents on the concepts of financial, academic, and social fit.
- Partner with reliable tax preparers (VITA Certified Volunteers) and offer tax prep sessions for parents of students in their junior year to ensure accurately tax preparation for the year taxes will be used for their students’ first year of college.
- Present the various college options alongside their sticker prices. For example: private four-year university, two-year community college, or public four-year university.
- Educate parents on scholarships, grants, and loans, including merit-based and need-based options.
- Provide user friendly information about annual and full-program costs using colleges’ cost of attendance tools, and illustrate how to apply to available aid sources.
- Offer financial aid completion workshops that support financial aid application submission
- Reiterate that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just step one in the financial aid process. Frequently students have to follow up with colleges to provide verification information and appeals to get financial aid offers.
- Start the financial aid process as early as possible. Offer step-up-to-college nights for parents and students throughout their student’s high school careers.
- Provide online resources and webinars for parents on the college application process, paying for college, scholarships, and more: The College Board Parent Webinar Youtube Playlist
What resources are available to help parents prepare for the financial aid and college application process?
- Address the change in life. Being a college student is much different than being a high school student. Prepare and educate parents on how life will change. Help set expectations and schedules. Students who provide significant support to their family (e.g. contributing financially by working, picking up/taking care of siblings or other extended family, etc.), must tackle extra considerations and planning.
- While hours spent in college classes may be less than while in high school, the number of hours needed to study and complete course work and access support resources to be successful increases.
- Building community within the college is also key to success, so parents’ understanding and support of students to extend their community in this way is extremely beneficial.
- FAFSA website – Free Application for Federal Student Aid
- FAFSA Forecaster – FAFSA4caster will help you understand your options for paying for college.
Short videos designed to help parents understand the financial aid process:
How can educators support students in achieving their long term academic goals?
- Believe in every single student. There is power in a growth mindset and instilling in a student that they may not be there yet but they can build and grow.
- Celebrate the work that goes into the process as much as the results.
- Find ways to connect every learning moment as a building block for life after high school and college, and reinforce the idea that there are multiple pathways for future success.
- Support students in building their network and connect them to potential mentors. This is helpful both within specific career field interests, and for more general aspects of transition from high school to college, and college to career.
- Connecting students with others with a similar background/experience who have completed college/entered into a field they are interested in can be especially beneficial.
- Create purposeful opportunities for students to get exposed to careers in their area of interest. In addition to growing their awareness of opportunities, faculty can increase students’ confidence by helping them picture themselves in work environments.
- Communicate with advisors, care teams, and other student support services about how the student is progressing, especially if there are any concerns. Collaboration across teams can better create opportunities for a holistic understanding of what will support an individual student.
- Share personal stories of one’s own journey to success as appropriate and relevant to build connection and allow for conversation to engage around shared experiences.
- Professors, particularly at the general education and community college level, must focus and teach beyond the subject matter. For students of any age, early courses can be an exercise in testing self confidence and positive self-efficacy.
- Faculty must care about the whole student. To support a student’s advancement throughout the college process, faculty must show personal investment and concern that students’ academic, financial, and social lives are cohesively moving forward successfully.
- Educating students who may have had difficult upbringings and challenging circumstances requires “Trauma Informed” training for faculty and student support services staff, allowing for a skillful management of classrooms, relationships, and learning environments that are considerate of the depths of the human condition with which students enter the classroom.
What advice would you give to a college to improve their recruitment strategies?
- Continue to improve financial aid packaging to increase the opportunities for low income students to attend your institutions.
- Be a constant presence at high schools where you are recruiting and strive for deeper connections between students and the programs your college offers.
- Hire recruiters/representatives that reflect the population or are culturally literate to attract the populations of priority.
- Invest in support systems that provide the necessary services to make progress toward degree completion.
- Let students know that they are additive and valuable to campus life on your campus.
- Think through a student’s lens: What do they need to know? Why would they want to select your school?
- Think about the amount of communication your institution sends, articulating why it is being sent and how frequently. Coordinate timing and purpose between departments. Email communication multiple times from varied departments in one day or week can feel overwhelming for a student and deter them from staying on top of deadlines and other communications.
What systems need to be in place for a student to thrive in college?
- Math support centers and labs with well-trained and credentialed tutor coaches that know how to teach the subject, but also instill confidence. This includes Supplemental Academic Instruction options for math and science courses.
- A writing Center with well-trained and credentialed tutor coaches that know how to edit, critique, and write, and also coach students through redrafting writing.
- Generally, a culture that understands that all are responsible for supporting student success, and ensuring students feel like they belong and can succeed.
- Visible and easy to access resources/supports. Introduce students to these early and reiterate their benefits often.
- Proactive, data-driven advising requires monitoring progress in real-time, knowing which students need what supports, and being able to target interventions to provide students with the information, resources, and supports they need as individuals, and builds in efficiencies for advisors and staff/faculty staff generally.
- A care-team is a collaboration to provide rapid-response to assess and provide intervention when there are concerns of potential harmful to self, others, or community.
- Structured academic maps give students a clear path forward.
- Resource: Academic Maps with Proactive Advising – Complete College America
- Access and encouragement to engage with peer mentors who have shared backgrounds and experiences.
- Easy access and connection points to resources available on campus – everything from financial aid and admission services, to transportation, food and shelter.
- Cohort-based learning, activities, and celebrations.
- Dedicated advisor(s) who can learn and share best practices, current research, and success mapping with each other.
- At DSF, this has been a critical part of our model’s success. The opportunity to link students to available services and meet 1:1 with them to provide thought partnership throughout has proven imperative to student success. Our advisors and campus contacts agree to shared student success requirements each academic year (DSF – Student Success Requirements) that allow for more meaningful touchpoints and accountability to drive success.
What are the pillars for success that need to be in place for a student to complete their degree?
- Academic: Successfully completing courses and efficiently making progress towards completing a degree on-time.
- Working with students to develop healthy habits (going to class, study habits, healthy sleep/eating) and feeling confident in seeking support (meeting professors, office hours, asking questions, know/access academic supports on campus).
- Financial: Having the resources to be able to pay for not only courses, but books, fees, transportation, living expenses, etc. Work with students to understand total cost and resources to cover expenses.
- While academic and financial pillars are key, understanding the other things that can impact a student to be successful in these areas is equally important. This includes:
- Support: connecting students to, and supporting students in identifying, appropriate resources for academic success and financial needs. Students who have an understanding of the importance of support and know that it is okay and smart to ask for help are likely to actually identify and seek support.
- Connection/engagement: Students building a community of peers and staff/faculty on campus. Students who feel engaged on campus statistically are more successful.
- Wellbeing/self-care: Sleeping/eating habits, time-management, impact of alcohol/drugs, mental health overall.
- Housing/transportation: In addition to financial implications, managing relationships/responsibilities of living situations. Addressing and finding resources to ensure the student has reliable access to transportation to get to class and access resources.
How to prevent financial assistance or scholarship applications from becoming a barrier?
- The process of completing the application is simple and straightforward
- The fewer questions, the better
- Continue to question and adjust your application to improve user experience
- Optimize the application for mobile users
- Clarity that allows for the student to check progress along the way, come back and make updates or adjustments before submitting
- Eliminate or limit essays and letters of recommendation to shorten application
- If essays are a part of the process, provide examples of what you are asking (“share a time when you have demonstrated leadership” could include “please share examples at home, at work, in school, providing care for family members, etc.)
- Offer Q&A and mock interview sessions
- Work with other scholarship providers and encourage students to apply for multiple scholarships at one time. At DSF, we work with our College Partners, and numerous other scholarship providers to conduct mock interviews, review applications, discuss essays to help students feel as confident as possible in submitting their applications.
- Create a user-friendly database of all vetted opportunities—including your scholarship as well as others—in one place: DSF Scholarship Resources
- Survey your scholars who have received the scholarship to ask them how easy/difficult it was and if they have suggestions for improvement. Do this annually.
- Provide longer deadlines, so students have more time to learn about your scholarship and complete the application.
How can organizations craft supportive policies that students can easily understand and use?
- Convey information in multiple formats, including visuals, avoiding excessive text.
- Using technology to connect with students on their cellphones (apps, texts, etc.)
- Use clear, concise, and teen-friendly language
- Operate and communicate with responsiveness that acknowledge benchmarks, completed tasks, and missing tasks/requirements
- Survey your scholars who have received the scholarship to ask them how easy/difficult it was and if they have suggestions for improvement. Do this annually.
- Meet regularly within the organization to make sure policies are as easy to understand as possible. Over the past two years, at DSF, we have worked hard to simplify our application. We have pushed the deadline further out, made every award amount the same based on credential of pursuit, clearly defined requirements and eliminated unnecessary forms. (DSF Scholarship Application)
How can CBOS and Higher Ed Institutions reduce barriers to entrance and success?
- Simplify the financial aid verification process and improve award letters and cost of attendance breakdowns.
- Intertwine increased financial aid packaging and intrusive student support services.
- Ensure all programs and opportunities are accessible to all potential student populations.
- Train faculty to also be concerned about student access and success beyond the classroom walls.
- Invest in faculty and environments that welcome and reflect diverse populations.
- Provide additional financial aid for programs with large fees and extended credit requirements
- Article: To and through: What research says about what works (and what doesn’t) to help students complete college – Chalkbeat
How can various stakeholders work together to ensure that students can meet their full potential inside and outside of the classroom?
- Convene stakeholders through partner meetings. DSF holds semesterly college and financial aid partner meetings.
- Create community partnerships with organizations, services, and employers that serve the personal, health, and extracurricular needs of served students, including data sharing and resource sharing.
How do you assess potential in a manner that is more inclusive of first-generation low-income students?
- Typical markers of playing sports, playing an instrument, volunteering may not apply as parental income impacts the ability for students to take part in these types of activities.
- Refer to work history or care-giver responsibilities.
- Discern reliability and contributions to family, community, and self in non-traditional ways.
- Continue to focus on the “why” of the student, their interests, and assets to help them recognize their own potential. It makes a significant difference when students believe in themselves.