Helping your child stay in college

ByTiffany Flowers

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It’s spring, and for students across the country, that means college decision time. For public school educators like me, this is one of the most thrilling times of the year, as our students start exploring where they want to attend college. But it’s also a time for reflection and action, because right now too few of our students have the chance to attend and graduate from college.

The importance of a college degree is growing: according to a recently released report by the Pew Research Center, young adults in the U.S. with a high school diploma earn only 62 percent of what their peers with a college degree earn. Yet over the past few decades, the U.S. has gone from being first in the world in college completion to running in the middle of the pack.

We need to make sure that many more American students – especially those from underserved backgrounds – are able to make it to and through college. As the executive director of KIPP Charlotte, I know from experience that first-generation college students can and will succeed in college with the right educational preparation and supports.

In KIPP here in Charlotte and across the country, we have identified three factors that make the biggest difference:

College match: We’ve seen that when a school is a good match for a student – affordable, challenging, supportive – it greatly increases the chances that they’ll graduate. This might mean looking at selective schools with high graduation rates for first-generation college students, as well as expensive schools that offer generous financial aid. These are things many underserved students may not necessarily consider.

In fact, researchers have found that high-achieving students from low income backgrounds who would be likely to get into elite schools are focusing on less-selective or less-expensive colleges instead. At KIPP, our college counselors try to reframe this conversation by helping high-school age students see that college match matters when it comes to choosing the right college.

Early exposure to college life: In order to help a student find the best “match” school for them, they need to have an opportunity to see all their options. This means creating programs to help students learn about individual schools and expose them to campus life. For example, Davidson College created the July Experience, through which prospective students from all backgrounds come to the school to take classes from professors, live in the residence halls, and attend sessions about the ins and outs of college applications.

Social support on campus: While a lot of the conversation around college success is focused on preparing to go to college, the support shouldn’t stop once students arrive. In fact, for many first-generation college students, the first few weeks on campus are often the hardest. Many of these students are living away from home for the first time, in an unfamiliar environment, adapting to both the academic and the social challenges of college all at once.

The key for many of these students is extensive on-campus support systems, from mentorship programs with older students to groups like the Posse Foundation helping students enter college with built-in networks of peers.

Addressing these three factors is crucial if we want to increase the number of underserved and first-generation students who graduate from college. This is vital if we want all of our children to have a shot at the American Dream and success in a global economy.