Young man reading a book


Two False Messages Students Get About College


Closing the achievement gap is a big, complex and nuanced issue, involving data, resources, accountability, assessment, equity, persistence—just to get you started.  

But what if some low-income students and students of color get left behind because they think that’s where they belong? In other words, students may be getting the wrong message about college—either that they’re not good enough to get in, or that they’re a failure if they don’t want to.

A team of experts explored these ideas on Tuesday in a panel discussion sponsored by the Lumina and Spencer Foundations, “Left Behind: How K-12 & Higher Education Fail Students and What Must Change.”

The discussion was inspired by four documentaries that American Public Media recently produced: Stuck at Square One, Spare the Rod: Reforming School Discipline, What It Takes: Chasing Graduation at High-Poverty High Schools and Rewriting the Sentence: College Behind Bars. 

The panel included:

The panelists focused on two false messages young people may be getting.

False Message #1: College Isn’t for Me

American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford has spent almost a decade reporting on education, and there’s something troubling she’s noticed: some students are more likely to know someone who went to jail than college.

“There’s a big river between these kids and something else, and there’s no bridge across that river,” Hanford said. As a result, they’re getting the message that college wasn’t designed for them.

And it wasn’t—at least not historically, as Spencer Foundation President Michael McPherson and Julie Ajinkya from the Institute for Higher Education Policy noted.

While today’s average student is increasingly non-white, first-generation and balancing school with work, universities were first designed by and for wealthy, white men.

“Students have changed,” Hanford said, “but the system hasn’t.”

False Message #2: College Is My Only Option

It’s ironic, this message that students get about college. On one hand, as Amelia Parnell from NASPA pointed out, young people are inundated with the statistics that tell them how much more college graduates earn than those without degrees.

On the other, college shouldn’t be the only pathway to a good life. “We need to have a broader conversation about what kids can do,” Hanford said. “Students still get a very one-size-fits-all message.”

Parnell believes that closing the achievement gap does not mean every student ends up in college—but rather that all students graduate high school equally prepared for whatever path they choose.

If they want to go to college, in other words, students should be able to; but if they don’t, that shouldn’t make them an automatic failure.

“When students graduate from high school, they should all have the same set of options,” Parnell said. “The message should be that they have a broad set of options.”

This article is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English-language learners, students of color and students with disabilities.


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