They're All Going to College

If we're not preparing high school students for college, what are we preparing them for?  Some parents and many teachers and administrators will insist that focusing on higher education ignores the needs of our voc-tech and non-college bound students.  I would argue that not setting those expectations for them discounts their potential and narrows their opportunities.

Every entering freshman and every parent needs to anticipate graduation and entry into higher education.  The current jargon of K-14 (instead of K-12) education is right on.  Not every graduate seeks the traditional liberal arts 4-year program but our community colleges offer an amazing array of programs to create diverse and highly skilled opportunities for every student.  All we need to do is hammer the expectation that EVERY student can and will participate.

The national Gear Up program is a great place to start.  Gear up focuses on middle school - high school partnerships, exposes students and parents to college campuses and financial aid opportunities and surrounds students with college-bound messages.  Students from college-educated parents get these messages at home.  For our high poverty schools or any student whose parents did not experience college, a college campus is like a foreign country -- vocabulary and a whole language that's unfamiliar, strange people dressed differently, mysterious costs and fees, and unfathomable paths to graduation.  They need tour guides.  That's our job as middle and high school educators.

Still, some protest, kids who aren't doing well academically, who aren't well suited to our high schools -- how can we expect these kids to survive in college?  As a high school educator, my answer would be that we have four years to get them suited.  Visiting a community college campus is a great start.  When students see, feel and smell the environment, get tours of diverse programs and have their questions answered, they come away wanting what they've glimpsed. 

The correlation between education levels and income is well known (see US Census Data).  A two-year or even shorter certificate program at a community college can have a big impact.  Don't care about income?  Similar correlations with mental health, civic participation, health care availability, family strength and other important considerations exist.

Yet high school students protest that Uncle Joe never went to college and is doing very well.  Maybe so.  But over the years, the opportunities for non-skilled workers have plummeted.  In our area, it's the demise of the timber industry.  In the Midwest, the export of factories to China and Mexico.  In California, the high cost of living that can't be sustained.  In too many rural areas, the disappearance of the family farm.  Non-skilled workers in Oregon compete with those in India, China, Brazil and Mexico. 

I am saddened that so many in education see students in two categories:  college-bound and "other".  We need to see all students as college-bound, present them with their higher education choices and educate families about college affordability.  Students need exposure to short-term certificate programs, 2-year programs that prepare them for good jobs, liberal arts programs and pre-professional tracks.  They also need to become critical consumers of the claims made particularly by for-profit colleges and trade schools, many of whom are more interested in the financial aid students bring than their education.  Most colleges provide good value but a few -- particularly those that cater heavily to low income students -- do not.  Without steering students unduly in one direction or another, we need to provide information they need to make their own decisions.

We need to get them excited about higher education and not discount portions of our student body as "just not college material".  And we need to teach them the college system so it seems less daunting and more familiar as they approach their final years of high school.

At North Valley, we increased our college-bound graduates from less than 50% in 2005 to 85% in 2009.  Until we reach 100% though, we have not achieved enough.  Strengthening the senior year was a key piece but creating a college-going culture is a whole school project.

Every high school student is a future college student.  Assuming otherwise demeans the power we have as educators and condemns some of our graduates to lifelong struggle in the minimum wage service economy.


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