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Panel: Strategies to Keep College Aspirations High for All

Ask kids in 8th grade if they plan to attend college, and there is almost universal enthusiasm. Research shows this is true even among low-income students and those who are low performing.

But something happens along the way for many that ends the dream. For some, it's academic struggles or the challenge of being a first-generation college student; for others it's lack of money—or some combination of the three.

How to help students stay on the college track and finish was discussed at The State of College Access Forum Wednesday, sponsored by National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) at the U.S. Capitol.

Don Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, shared research from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 that tracked middle school students' interest in college and stages at which they dropped out by income and achievement levels. Just half of the poorest students made it to college, while 96 percent of those who were wealthy enrolled.

"We lose poor students at every step, although they say they have the aspirations," he said.

The gaps were even greater when looking at who went to a four-year university, which have a better record for college completion. While 21 percent of students from families making less than $25,000 a year attended these institutions, 79 percent of students in households making more than $75,000 enrolled, the NELS research found. Academic readiness and sociocultural issues, such as "college knowledge" and awareness of financial aid, were also factors.

Other studies of successful college students show that parents and personal resiliency also matter, said Laura Perna, professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Having the confidence and knowledge that money will be available is significant for potential college students. But to improve completion, she added, public policy likely is best directed at financial support and academic preparation.

Talk of college planning and saving should start with families of 4th and 5th graders, said Tally Hart, a retired director of student aid and founder of Ohio State University's Economic Access Initiative. College-access programs are most successful when they are at a convenient location (in the students' school rather than on campus) and with a meal, when possible, especially when connecting with first-generation families, she said.

To improve access, financial-aid offices need to invest in communications and outreach. "Families need to know early that money is available so they can choose the right courses" in middle and high school to prepare students for college, said Hart.

For children, it is important to learn about college from a peer. Universities can set up these exchanges at little cost, said Hart. More evaluation should be done not only to find out if families think access programs are valuable, but also to find out if a program "actually moves the needle" in completion, she added.

Once college is near, transition programs, such as the College Success Foundation - District of Columbia, can guide students through the process and teach them to advocate for themselves, said Kya Dixon, college program officer with the nonprofit program at the forum this week.

Starting in their junior year of high school, about 250 underrepresented students begin to receive training and support from CSF. A summer academic-enrichment program introduces them to campus life. Mentors are paired with the students, and advisers are assigned in high school and college to provide ongoing support throughout their college experience. The focus is on building strong relationships with students so they will contact CSF for help, when needed.

This panel addressing the "other pieces to the access puzzle" followed speakers who talked about the future role of Pell Grants, covered in yesterday's blog.

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