My Thoughts on College Access – Part 1

Let’s say your good friend has a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. He confides in you, and so you help him sign up for a gym membership. The gym is super conveniently located – right next to his apartment – and there’s even a discount! You even promise that you’ll treat him to a dinner after he finishes signing up to celebrate his accomplishments.

Good friend? I’m not so sure. Remember, your friend just said he wanted to lose weight. You made a leap of judgment to assume he needed a gym membership to do so. Maybe your friend would prefer to run outside. Maybe he has already spoken to his doctor about a diet plan that is more suited to his weight loss goals. It’s not that joining a gym does not have a potential positive benefit – it’s just that your friend may not be specifically looking for that particular benefit at this point in his life.

In many ways, this story exemplifies what I often find infuriating about the recent field of “college access.” Don’t get me wrong – as a former college counselor, I believe strongly that all students deserve information on and access to the range of higher educational opportunities that exist. I also believe, however, that the choice to pursue higher education is a choice that a student (and not his counselor!) must make according to his own goals and vision for the future. The way I see it, there are also other options other than higher education: Students may choose to enlist in the armed forces, for example, or they may choose to work to provide for their family, and they deserve to be properly informed about the pros and cons of each decision. Just like it is your friend’s prerogative to choose his personal weight loss plan.

This might be a good time for a caveat. This post is informed by my personal experiences working on college access in predominantly low-income high schools. I am well aware that other opinions and philosophies exist, but I believe this particular viewpoint is often unheard:

My issue with some of the college access work I have seen (and admittedly, have participated in) is that there is too much emphasis on numbers and too little emphasis on students. We feel good inside when we hear about a school-wide campaign to get 100% of students apply for college or about a district-wide increase in FAFSA completion. The problem with focusing on numbers instead of students, however, is that strange and perverse incentives often creep in. I’ve seen counselors dangle the possibility of candy or pizza in front of high school seniors to entice them to submit a college application – even though the student has explicitly made clear that he/she has other plans for the following year. So does reaching 100% mean that 100% wanted to go to college – or does it mean that 100% wanted the food incentive that came from pressing “submit?” It’s hard to tell.

I would love to see a world in which educators spend more time listening than mandating. This may take more time and more energy, but I think our students deserve that. A good friend also pointed out that college counselors were once called guidance counselors, people who guide on post-high school decisions – I think that name change is significant. Especially when students are on the brink of adulthood, they need adults who not only provide perspective and guidance but also support for their goals and their dreams. When incentivized, politicized, or measured wrong, “college access” becomes about the adult – and not about the young adult we are supposed to serve.

How does this all relate to BridgeYear?

As of today, BridgeYear has 82 students who have opted in to receive a personal advisor for their summer transition into community college. These students chose to complete a short 5 minute registration form for BridgeYear on their phone or computer; they were not mandated or incentivized to do so.

Our advisors are tracking data – but we know there is a story behind every data point. We care just as much about our end outcomes as we do about the process it took to get there. We know that the solution to increasing college matriculation numbers is not about personally escorting students to file the necessary paperwork and attend mandatory sessions. Instead, it’s about coaching students through problem solving the steps on their own – a process that may result in lowered short-term returns but ultimately higher long-term gains.

Most importantly, at BridgeYear, we do not claim that one path to higher education is better than another path, nor will we ever claim that the choice to enter the workforce directly is somehow inferior than the choice to enter college. At BridgeYear, we are aiming for 100% on our own terms, so we are aware that it is entirely possible that 100% of our students will not enroll in community college in the Fall. Instead, at BridgeYear, we are committed to ensuring that 100% of our students will be supported to accomplish the goals they have set out for themselves: Goals that we must always remember we are fortunate and privileged enough to support.

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