Community in Higher Education

Primary and secondary education make it a point to try to involve parents in the education process. Just today someone was telling a story about how her child receives checklists from school so that parents know what homework the student should be completing over the week. Schools regularly host parent-teacher conferences. Debates around the merits of a “neighborhood school” versus busing or other means of integration still rage.

Not so much in higher education. It’s as though higher education expects 17-18 year olds to be full formed adults even though part of what we do is shape young people into citizens; at least by the old education is a “public good” standards. We are supposed to know that they aren’t fully formed adults. Yet, why do we cut off their parents abruptly?

With regard to first generation and low-income students cutting off family can be especially traumatic. Research shows that community can be especially important for minoritized students, and first generation and low-income students are similar. When you have had to come together as a community to find ways to defeat racism, or survive fiscally then it can become unfathomable to break from the community when one goes to school. And why should someone do so? The way higher education speaks about access often seems like implicitly marginalized students should reject their home communities and join this “better” way of doing things. The conversation implies that socialization into the academy requires putting away  all that came before.

If we are going to meet the access and completion agendas we have to find better ways to incorporate communities into higher education. It is perfectly fine to expose students to new ideas. It is not okay to for educators to bury their heads in the sand and not try to find ways to incorporate students’ culture and home communities into the college going culture and process. There are many skills that marginalized students bring with them that do not fit neatly into existing frameworks, but those skills may be what leads to new ways of thinking, not only in the classroom, but in the workplace.

Building college going cultures requires incorporating whole families so that they understand what their young person is heading off to do, and thus, the family can support it. Building family into the culture also may save dollars because college going programming may not have to be repeated with younger siblings if parents/guardians also learn the process.

At its heart education is a community process and for it to be effective beyond one person then the community has to be involved from start to finish.


Today we’re proud of our student Katiera Rutledge! Katiera is a student we’ve worked with over the past two years who was interested in transferring from her community college to the University of Maryland at College Park. Her story was featured here.

Katiera was originally denied admission, but after some encouragement from us, called the Admissions Office to find out how to become a stronger application. At that point the Admissions Office discovered that her file had simply been misfiled! Katiera had earned admission to her dream school after all.

This student’s story tells us a few things about the transfer process.

1) It can sometimes be scary. 

Katiera was used to the community college setting, and, even though she wanted to transfer, was a bit reluctant to apply to the larger, flagship school. We worked to demonstrate just how prepared, and ready she truly is, to allay the “I’m not good enough” fears.

2) Follow up can make all the distance.

Katiera did not call the university ranting, but she did ask questions regarding her application, and what she could do to make it stronger. Not all universities are open to such calls, but the lesson here is to let them tell you no rather than assuming the answer without speaking to someone first.

3) Seek outside help. 

Katiera has worked with us over the two years to bridge the gap between her community college and her dream school. Guidance counselors, and university officials are great places to start looking for information about college or transfer, but don’t discount the web, and books! There are a wealth of people in the world who want to see students succeed, and are willing to answer questions. This site is one of those places as well.

Low-Income Students SHOULD Be Applying to Top Colleges

The research shows over and over again that low-income students do well at “elite” colleges. However, top schools, including the Ivies, keep stating that they do not get applications from these students even if they are highly qualified.

A recent NPR report reemphasized the problem and hypothesized that part of the issue is that low-income students in areas where there isn’t a top performing high school just aren’t being encouraged to push and apply to these schools. You can check out the report here.

In the Washington, D.C. area we have several high schools that are geared toward preparing our varied population to attend college. However, even many of these students, as our own program shows do not necessarily know how to select a list of schools to which they want to apply, and how to prepare a competitive application.

We who work with young people have to encourage them to apply to all types of colleges. Many of these schools will provide a fee waiver for the application if a student reaches out and asks. One of the problems I find is that students are afraid to ask, or do not know to whom to write. We have to teach them to craft professional emails to people in power. This is one of the first lessons we teach in our program.

Another issue is that many times those of us who went to college rely on our own experiences. We have to remember that when we attended we were working with information that was relevant at the time. Just because we didn’t like a particular institution, or it wasn’t affordable to us doesn’t mean that the young people we mentor will have the same experience.

Encourage low-income students with great grades to apply to the schools of their dreams.  The schools are waiting for them.


It’s the Network Silly!

What opportunities will your university provide?

In a twitter chat yesterday about parenting style somehow the topic veered into what constitutes a “good” school.  Many educators are of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what school you attend so long as a student likes their experience and does well.  When it comes to a first generation student I wholeheartedly disagree.  A large part of the college going process is about with whom you’re also attending school.

A bright, motivated student will perform well anywhere he or she attends college.  However, the college experience isn’t just about earning good grades.  Students go to school to have a short period of time to get to know other bright, motivated people.  They build networks of friends and associates whom they can call upon later in life when they are looking for a job, or perhaps raising money to run for President of the United States!

For the first generation college student the choice of which university to attend could mean the difference between seeing successful peers who model how to aim high and being stuck with peers who are in the exact same boat and don’t know how to paddle to shore.  To achieve great things it helps to see that others have or are working toward achieving great things, and no this phenomenon does not happen at all colleges.

In addition to college peers showing what is achievable, a “good” college expands a student’s possibilities.  A small college with no endowment may not provide the scholarship the first generation student needs to study abroad, or take an extra summer class.  A first generation college student has to be especially careful to ask the right questions of admissions officers when determining which school is right for him or her. Often times our parents cannot guide us past what they know, so the first generation student will want to find an institution that can and is willing to do that for him or her.

Lastly, with whom is your college affiliated?  I am an academic advisor at an institution that provides students with direct access to internships that automatically lead to jobs.  This institution also has partnerships with one of the most prestigious museums in the nation.  Political figures have lectured here.  Students can, and do, stand on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before them, and even go beyond their mentors and the institution.  However, the university’s affiliations are what gives them boost they need in the first place.

Consider carefully what you want out of your education and pursue the right school accordingly.  Don’t forget the intangibles in your decision because they may  be exactly what makes all the difference.  Akil Bello of Bell Curves said it best in yesterday’s chat:  “networks, exposure to possibilities, clear examples of the achievable, “inside info”.. it matters.”

Commit to an Institution that is Committed to You

The federal government is committed to helping student obtain a formal education.  To this end the feds have made borrowing much easier for many.  Many institutions know that students have guaranteed federal dollars backing their education, and will recruit you as a full-tuition paying student.

Before making a decision to attend an instutition investigate its programs for first-generation students.  Some colleges and universities have special summer courses to help students acclimate themselves to collegiate life.  Other institutions have special residence halls or special orientations for their students.  One of the most valuable tools institutions can provide to is a “first-year experience” program.

First-year experience programs teach students how to access faculty, how to study, choosing a major, and learning to plan your future.  Your first year experience program coordinator  should have continual contact with you throughout your year.

Before agreeing to attend an institution try to meet not only with admissions officers, but also student affairs and faculty.  Discuss with the institution how much scholarship money is available after enrollment.

No one can decide for you which institution is best for you, but asking the above questions can aid you in not regretting your final decision.

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

Higher education is not the same as primary or secondary education.  At this level everyone expect you to be an adult who is fully autonomous.  That means you are responsible for everything in your student handbook and syllabi.  These are contracts between you and the institution.  Read them carefully.  As an admissions officer, I have met many a student who is upset because they have a charge on their bill that an institution has stated it will charge, but yet the student was unaware.  You are responsible for checking into how well a school supports its students, how often faculty are available, what type of accreditation the school has, graduation rates, and many other aspects of college life.  Be sure to see the student life office and your advisor if you are unsure.  It is better to ask upfront than to find out down the line.

This story from Inside Higher Education epitomizes why it is important to do your homework:

Now that you have decided where you want to go you should make a plan to graduate.  College is definitely a place where you can explore and learn new things, but the end goal is to graduate with letters behind your name.  Leaving college with student loan debt and no degree is wholly a difficult place in which to be.  Or what could be even worse is having the need to borrow extra loan money because you need to complete extra degree requirements.  Planning for your collegiate years can mean different things for different types of students, but there are essentials that can apply to anyone.  Ask yourself: will I need to work while I am in school, and if so will that hamper my progress; what exactly are my degree requirements; how often are my required classes offered; and do my classes meet on days and times that I can arrive on time and ready to work?

College is a marathon of endurance and stamina, and planning out each step of the way will keep you on track to graduate on time!