Getting poor students to college isn't just about affordability. It's about access.

Students from low-income communities need the same mentoring, leadership opportunities, and support through the college application process as their higher-income peers. Strategic partnerships between K-12 schools and local colleges are a key part of this exposure.

Ned Gerard/Connecticut Post/AP
Allan Grimes, a senior from Central High School, turns in his paperwork for an upcoming tour of colleges organized by The Village Initiative Project, in Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 10. Op-ed contributor Rick Dalton says 'millions of high-paying jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the skills and education to do them.' Solving this mismatch means, '[h]elping talented students from low-income backgrounds access college.'

Even with seesawing reports on whether the economy is getting better or worse, one factor remains constant. Many people assume the persistently high unemployment rates mean America needs more job creation. That may be partly true, but here’s a surprising fact: Millions of Americans need good jobs, but millions of high-paying jobs are going unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the skills and education to do them.

Much of the discussion about how to address this mismatch revolves around how to make higher education more affordable for children from low-income families, who represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the country.

But affordability is only part of the battle. Too many of America’s children aren’t worried about the cost of higher education because they can’t even imagine attending college in the first place. To improve educational access, students from low-income communities need the same mentoring, leadership opportunities, and support through the college application process as their higher-income peers. Strategic partnerships between K-12 schools and local colleges are a key part of this exposure.

Think of the way the typical college search and admissions process happens for children from upper income households. By 9th grade, most of these young people are already aware of Advanced Placement courses, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and other factors that lead to college acceptance. In the next year or so, they begin receiving direct mail publications from colleges that target full-pay applicants. Their parents and other family members see higher education as a given, and work closely with them throughout the admissions process to make sure they look as good as possible to prospective colleges.

The situation is starkly different for students from low-income families. Due to economic factors, many attend schools with fewer resources, where fewer opportunities are offered to them, and less may be expected of them. Those who do manage to excel academically are still often confounded by the college entrance process – from taking the SAT or ACT, to understanding how to get financial aid, to simply being able to visit colleges to understand what they have to offer. Many live in neighborhoods with few adults who attended college, and without direct guidance, many of these talented students end up tracked for low-skill, low-wage employment for the rest of their lives.

The impact on our nation is staggering. Three decades ago America was ranked No. 1 worldwide in the proportion of citizens with college degrees. Today we rank 12th, and the college-going and college-graduation gaps between students from middle and upper income households and their lower income peers have widened every year since 1980. In 10 years, 20 million jobs will go unfilled because there aren’t enough workers qualified to do them.

Helping talented students from low-income backgrounds access college requires multi-faceted support. Our program, College for Every Student, has forged a partnership between 200 K-12 schools and 210 colleges in 24 states to help these students realize a different future than the one they might have otherwise found. The partnership has engaged 20,000 students from economically challenged rural and urban communities in an effort to boost college readiness, college going, and college graduation. Most students participating in the program do not have parents who attended college.

We begin working with these students as early as the beginning grades of elementary school and support students up through the college application process to college graduation.

Two key tenets guide the partnership. First is the recognition that these students need role models to boost their aspirations. Second is that, despite their personal circumstances, their schools must expect more of them, not less. The results present a telling picture.

Currently, 99 percent of the students who participate in our program graduate from high school, and 96 percent of these students go on to college. Ours is not the only program to improve awareness of and access to college among low-income students. Like any successful initiative, our partnership has three key components, or messages for students:

Make college top-of-mind early and often. Common practice is to hold events like college fairs for students in high school. Yet much of the work that has to happen to prepare for college entrance begins much earlier. For that reason, elementary schools in our program begin college readiness activities as early as first grade, to instill the vision of a college education when the kids are still young. Exposure and expectation are key, and they must start early.

Many elementary school students and all of those in later grades are also peered with mentors who are just a bit older and who have a lot in common with them. These mentors reinforce the belief that, with hard work and persistence, they can and will attend college. The message: I’m a lot like you, and if I can succeed, you can, too.

Lead others, regardless of your personal circumstances. While many students in the program face significant economic and social barriers, the program takes what might seem like a counterintuitive approach to addressing them. Instead of asking less of students to accommodate those challenging external factors, we ask more of our students. We ask them to proactively tackle problems by strengthening their communities.

Every student is expected to engage in leadership activities that support their local community and/or school. Activities vary based on each student’s interests and often require them to do things beyond their comfort zone, such as public speaking or organizing a school-wide college awareness event. These activities build discipline and strengthen personal aspirations, leading the students to realize they can improve the lives of others even though they’ve faced significant challenges of their own.

With help, you can navigate the journey to college. All K-12 schools in the program have partnerships with neighboring colleges. Many students end up with mentors from those colleges, and virtually all spend time on college campuses – an experience that can be transformative to students who have never set foot on one. The students also get help from college students and alumni and even older peers who help them navigate the maze of application and financial aid forms. And throughout the process, their aspirations are reinforced.

The journey from preparation to entrance to graduation is still difficult, but through the support of this network, they have the guidance that’s customary for upper-income kids every step of the way. And it takes only $250 per student annually.

These partnerships between the colleges and K-12 schools are based on the mutual recognition that educated students lead to educated college graduates and, in turn, young people who are ready to work and get our economy back on track.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College for Every Student.

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