Why good students don't reach college

Support during the complex application process is key, a new Chicago study finds.

Stephen Carrera – special to christian science monitor
Next stop, college? Students at Walter Payton High School in Chicago headed to their next class last Friday.

When it comes to attending college – one that's a good match – going to a high school with a collegegoing culture makes a big difference.

So does filling out the often-overwhelming Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), applying to multiple schools, and getting steady support from teachers and counselors throughout the tortuous application process.

The lack of those things explains why so many Chicago Public School students don't get to college, or settle for a lesser education, according to a new study that spent three years examining the "potholes" on the road to college.

Eighty-three percent of CPS students aspire to a four-year degree, but about 40 percent of those don't even apply for one, the study found. Among top-achieving students, only 38 percent enrolled in a school that matched their qualifications.

The study, by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, focused on CPS students, but it highlights challenges faced by students everywhere – especially those who are the first in their families to apply to college.

"This is a national policy issue, especially for cities and urban areas," says Vanessa Coca, a researcher for the study. "Wherever you have parents who don't have access to the information, you're going to have students who are lost in the process."

A 2006 Consortium study had shown that of every 100 Chicago high school freshmen, just eight will have a college degree by their mid-20s.

The question for Ms. Coca and other researchers was why.

Some of the most illuminating answers emerged from the in-depth studies of individual students. There was Jennie, a bright, hardworking Latina student who planned to go to a four-year college. She thought she needed to decide a career first, though, and worried about burdening her family with loans. Without guidance on how to search or apply for aid, she ultimately settled for a local community college.

Or Sabrina, a top student with a 3.77 GPA, who considered applying to a number of good colleges across the country. After a scholarship fell through, she accepted a full-ride offer from a small Florida liberal arts school she'd never applied to. It was rescinded over the summer, and Sabrina ended up working a retail job in the fall, her college plans put off indefinitely.

In addition to lack of adult guidance, the study found many students tripped up over complicated FAFSA applications. Yet those who completed the FAFSA form on time and were accepted into a four-year college were 50 percent more likely to enroll. Latinos – who are less likely to go to a four-year college than any other group the study looked at – were also least likely to report filling out a FAFSA.

"If there was some simplification of [FAFSA], or students were getting more support, we'd see more kids going to colleges," says Coca.

The study coincides with efforts CPS is making to help more students get to the appropriate college.

A year ago, for instance, the district introduced a system to track completion of FAFSA forms. Principals and counselors can keep a running tab on every student and let them know if they missed a question or two on the form.

"This is huge," says Greg Darnieder, director of postsecondary education and student development for the district.

His office has provided FAFSA workshops, and advocates for a simpler form. It also put college coaches in 27 high schools and, this spring break, it is sending 10 bus loads of qualified students to visit colleges around the country. "We know that this challenge is really about school culture and expectations," says Mr. Darnieder.

That college-going climate is key, say researchers and some principals.

At North Lawndale College Prep, a charter school that serves a low-income, minority population, each incoming freshman class gets a counselor who stays with them for five years, even through their first year of college. "They're the advocate, the social worker, the academic adviser," says Chris Kelly, chief operating officer of the school.

Some 85 to 90 percent of North Lawndale seniors currently go on to higher education, and 70 to 75 percent are still enrolled. Often, says Mr. Kelly, it's the support his school provides in those early, unsettling months of college that helps students stick it out.

In many ways, say experts, this is a new issue for schools to be tackling. Several decades ago, high schools just assumed that kids learned about colleges from their parents. "What our society is doing is suddenly telling everybody, all kids, that the rules have changed, you have to get further education," says James Rosenbaum, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University. "The question is what needs to be done in order to make it possible for these new groups of people, the first generation, to go to college."

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