Have You Visited a Middle School Lately?

Generous financial aid packages will only go so far, writes Arlene Cash. Higher education needs to get involved in the lives of disadvantaged children well before they can apply to college, she says.

March 9, 2009

To dramatically increase the numbers of low-income and under-represented students on college campuses, colleges and universities will have to offer more than handsome financial aid packages. If we really want to get serious about making colleges and universities more diverse and accessible, institutions must help to change the long-standing perception -- among both teens and their parents in some low-income communities -- that higher education is only for wealthy white students.

To change such long-held beliefs, we need to do more than simply stand at information booths on college nights or line school hallways with glossy posters. We need to dedicate the time necessary to motivate them, and we need to do it earlier -- when they’re in middle school.

Colleges cannot simply leave it to high school guidance counselors to inspire these young adults. We must, instead, take a more active role by reaching out to students when they’re in middle school, when college preparation begins. Almost all college-track programs require students to take Algebra I in the eighth grade. And yet many children with parents who haven’t gone to college -- including high-achievers -- are steered away from those courses by well-meaning friends and adults, who, by adhering to the myth that “college isn’t for people like us” mistakenly divert promising students off the college-going track. If we don’t step in and show these students and their parents that they are not only capable of going to college, but that we can help them find ways to pay for it, the money we pour into financial aid programs may never reach them.

For the last five years, Spelman College has participated in Project Nobility, an after-school and summer enrichment program at Brown Middle School in Atlanta. Financed by the Georgia State Department of Education, Spelman’s program supported hundreds of students and their families with tutoring, enrichment activities and workshops. But beyond that, we helped students get on the path to college by encouraging them to take those more difficult classes, teaching them essential study skills, and demonstrating to them that we were investing in their futures.

Just as critical, we worked with parents, offering them workshops on supporting their children’s academic success, financial literacy, and saving for college, constantly repeating the message that their children were worthy of a college education. Some parents were so inspired that they signed themselves up for continuing education courses, further fostering the college-going mentality while acting as examples to their children.

We can’t stop at the schools. Churches, particularly African-American churches, are fertile ground for promoting higher education in low-income communities. Several youth ministers take students on campus tours and are eager to formulate partnerships with colleges and universities. But if we want to reach more of these students — and help their parents understand that college is a possibility for their children — we need to go to them.

The California State University system did just that last year. Its Super Sunday program brought the system chancellor and campus presidents to 52 African American churches throughout California, where they offered students, parents and grandparents advice about college preparation, financial aid, and the application process. More of us should follow Cal State’s lead and spend time reaching out to ministers, parishioners and younger church-goers in our communities and beyond.

Admittedly, Spelman has no shortage of qualified applicants for a class of just 550 women. Still, it’s incumbent on all of us as educators to reach out to all potential students — men and women of all income levels and racial backgrounds — and encourage them to pursue a higher education, whether it at private institutions like ours, at state universities, or community colleges.

This isn’t just a priority for Spelman. In its report, “Coming to our Senses: Education and the American Future,” The College Board’s Commission on Access, Admissions and Success in Higher Education recently recommended that colleges and universities reach out to schools, communities and faith-based organizations to make sure students and families from underrepresented communities are preparing for college in middle school.

I cannot count the number of admissions essays that detail how young students were discouraged from applying for college by members of their own community, including teachers and other adults. But they persevered, inspired often by tutors or youth ministers to leave their communities for something better. We cannot expect to reach all of these kids by simply promising them scholarships. Instead, we’ve got to demonstrate that they, too, belong on a college campus, that they can do the work, and that we are ready to show them the way.


Arlene Cash is vice president for enrollment management at Spelman College.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top