Naturally, I understand that there's no significant magic or difference in providing college planning and counseling services to students of color per se, but there are important ways to help build upon their college aspirations in the course of doing this work. A while back, several colleagues and I got into a long discussion about the quality of their college advisors during the critical junior and senior years of high school.
I was pretty stunned to hear tales like, "My guidance counselor told me not to apply to NYU because I probably wouldn't get in. And if I did get in, she said there was no way I'd ever graduate...interestingly enough, she was the same college counselor who told my mother the best she could hope to become was a secretary...she didn't see college in the cards for her."
One after the other, I heard bright college graduates of color tell similar stories about the inadequate college counseling they received. And as the for the staff member who was told she'd never get into or graduate from NYU, she finished and went on to get a graduate degree at an equally prestigious institution.
The truth is that college counseling can be tricky. A student with a 2.0 GPA has little to no chance of getting into an Ivy League institution. And when I say "little chance," I know I'm being generous. But the reality is that many of the counselors entrusted with helping young people to navigate their futures haven't spent an appreciable amount of time comparing notes with college admissions professionals. Counselors need to be balanced in their advice and ultimately respect a family's decision about the schools to which their students apply and head off. Here's my Power List for making the road a bit easier.
1) College Counselors Aren't Fortune-Tellers
I find it somewhat strange when I hear stories about college counselors who feel qualified to predict the future. The idea that you would tell a student that he or she won't be admitted to or graduate from a particular school seems ludicrous. College admissions professionals take a variety of factors into account when they are making admissions decisions: GPA, SAT or ACT scores, essays, civic engagement, leadership ability, gifts and talents, etc. Kids who show a particular tenacity to overcome obstacles that indicates a maturity superior to their peers might have an edge on kids who've had everything handed to them. The bottom line is this: counsel your students through the options and speak frankly, but don't make damaging, misguided statements about what they will and will not achieve in life.
2) Infuse College Awareness Early in High School
With all the data that's available on the importance of early college awareness, I was shocked to hear one of my students complain that her guidance counselor was annoyed that she returned to school in the fall of her senior year with a completed list of colleges where she planned to apply -- and the corresponding essays already written. Starting early and giving young people a broader sense of the college landscape early on can do important things. First, the student whose heart is set on Amherst or Spelman College should know in ninth grade what those schools will be looking for in terms of academic records and extracurricular activities. Second, knowing this information early can help students and their families develop a more realistic approach to the college application process.
3) Be Organized
Most college counselors are operating with limited human resources, but managing the process for students is a vital part of the job. They shouldn't miss out on college opportunities because the guidance office "forgot" to mail transcripts and recommendation letters on time. To make sure our students have all the individualized support they deserve, one of the strategies we've developed at Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) is to recruit a college advisement mentoring program that brings college graduates in as volunteers to help keep everyone on their toes. Additionally, try to engage your school and district in identifying technological solutions that can make your life easier. There is software designed specifically to manage the college planning and application process.
4) Partner with the College Access Community
There is a vast network of college access programs like HEAF in many communities across the country. They provide out-of-school time support to make sure that students in the communities you serve have access to college and the resources needed to make that happen. Contact the National College Access Network to see who is in your neighborhood and to find out how your school can become a feeder to some of the work they are doing. When resources are hard to come by, community-based collaboration can be an essential piece of the college counseling puzzle for your students.
5) Celebration Makes Aspirations Contagious
In my senior year of high school, our guidance counselor posted the name of every student in the senior class on a chart in the lobby of the school. Each time someone received an admissions letter, the name of the college to which they'd been admitted was listed next to their names. During the admissions season, there was a constant buzz in the lobby to see who'd gotten in where and to congratulate our peers. One of the things that I found so compelling about HEAF when I joined the organization in 2002 was that the walls were covered with college acceptance letters. And I was most struck not by the effect this had on current seniors, but instead by the clusters of younger students who marveled at those admissions walls. As one of our recent college graduates said, "Every time I came to HEAF, I'd look at that wall and think to myself that I couldn't wait until it was my turn!" My guess is that if you focus in an intentional way on creating a college-going culture for all your students, even those students who were on the fence about higher education may eventually consider the possibilities and opportunities that a college education can provide.
In the final analysis, I've had the most success counseling students and families with whom I shared some kind of relationship or connection. At the very least, depending on how many college-bound students are in your charge, students and families will need to trust and respect you enough to hear what you have to say. Get in the game early and choose your words carefully. You don't want to be the one on your faculty that kids remember the most 20 years later because you told them what they couldn't become.