College Access and What It Means to be a Student

Across the country, young people are anxiously awaiting and excitedly receiving letters and emails from our institutions of higher education telling them that they have been accepted for enrollment and giving them a glimpse of what the future holds. I remember this time during my own senior year and have shared this time repeatedly with the young people I have worked with over the years. It is a remarkable moment in a lifetime.

The problem is that many students never glimpse this future vision and never arrive at this seminal moment. These students are typically low-income (rural and urban). These students are disproportionately students of color. These students come from already failing schools and live in communities that too often lack opportunities for them as well. These students are immigrants and children of immigrants. These young people are caught in a dangerous cycle.

Now, some of you might already be thinking it, and I have heard more times than I can handle, that “all students are not college material.” I agree. But why in 2012 do we accept using such an excuse to rationalize the exclusion of low-income students and students of color from a pathway to higher education? From a pathway out of poverty? Shouldn’t all students have a right to educational choice? To determine their own futures and their own pathways with equitable and accurate information and adequate support? To define their own pursuit of happiness?

Research consistently shows that regardless of race, class, or geography, middle and high school students aspire to go to college at an 80-90 percent rate! Too often, however, students aspire without understanding what college is or how to get there, much less how to pay for it. Too many young people think of college as 13th grade. Our problem is not in student aspiration; it is in adequate student support and planning. This is not their fault. This is our fault.

With that being said, we must understand and admit that to provide adequately the support and planning for many of our students to make it to college, and to do so with equitable choices, requires a full-time staff commitment of professional college counselors. True college counseling is not a percentage of another staff person’s time. It is not something we can do when/if we have time around testing, coordinating tests, or have a few minutes at the end of class. That won’t cut it.

We also must understand that the “boot-straps” stories that get very popular this time of year, while certainly worth celebrating, are stories of young people who have succeeded despite the system, not because of it. We need to celebrate these young people, but not be blind to the real problems by their stellar individual efforts.

The fact is that, despite many successful programs around the country, the system for supporting low-income, first-generation students to access a college education is broken…on second thought, it is non-existent. And, to make matters worse, students know it. This gap is a recipe for hopelessness and a crushed vision for the future. If high school is not preparing us for positive opportunities after high school, what is the point of high school?

College access is more than credentialing. It’s about a sense of self, of identity, a sense of purpose, of hope, a pathway out of poverty, and a reason to make good choices along the way. These should be part of the system, not counter to it. These should be opportunities for every student.

Anderson Williams is Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives of the Tennessee College Access & Success Network.