The Middle Ground

For some students, going to college is an expectation from the time they are born. I was one such student. My parents consistently reminded me as I was growing up that I needed to maintain good grades, earn strong test scores, and involve myself with the school and local community to be a competitive college applicant. Therefore, it was a big surprise when I learned that several of my classmates who had been in AP courses with me were not planning on attending college.

Today, I am an educational adviser with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Young Scholars Program, which focuses on helping high-achieving students with financial need attend and thrive at the nation’s top colleges. Since my naive perceptions during high school, I have learned through my work that the norm for most of America’s students is not to attend college. In fact, Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Christopher Avery did a comprehensive study of high-performing, low-income students and published groundbreaking research in 2012, finding that nearly one-fourth of these students never even apply to college. While there are several reasons why, the one that I believe educators all have the power to influence the most is a lack of exposure.

At a school in rural North Carolina, where previously only 11 percent of students were expected to graduate college in six years (based on family income), there is now a 63 percent success rate of college degree attainment. As a former middle level teacher at that school, there are many things that I attribute to this success—not the least of which is the fact that our students, families, and staff were all willing to try. Some of the big things that we did to help to create a college-going school culture were to lengthen the school day and not create set “tracks” for our classes in order to ensure all students had access to a rigorous curriculum. I know that these big choices cannot be applied everywhere. But there were also many small, simple practices that I believe are easily transferable to any school.

One of the ways we were able to inspire a college-going culture was having a college shirt day where both staff and students were encouraged to wear college T-shirts or sweatshirts to school. When I look back at my elementary and middle level pictures, I notice that I was often wearing a Notre Dame or Michigan sweatshirt. The decision my parents made to buy me college gear for athletic teams that I supported helped me to internalize that one day, I would be attending college.

Furthermore, our hallways were decorated with college pennants so students couldn’t go anywhere in the school without seeing one. We even named our homerooms after the colleges that the teachers graduated from, so when we called for attendance, you might have heard me say, “I need all University of Maryland students to line up.” This was a great source of pride for our teachers, which then inspired our students to want to have the same sense of pride for their future alma maters.

We also scheduled field trips every year, starting as young as fifth grade, to visit nearby college campuses. For many visits, current attendees of the college gave us a tour and talked with our students about the steps it took for them to come from their neighborhood and attend that school. Seeing these near-peer role models is extremely helpful to students and allows them to visualize themselves on these college campuses, as well as to learn about the hard work and skills necessary to make it as a college student.

If your school does not have funding for college visits, there are ways to bring college students to you, either by inviting alumni back to speak with your students or by reaching out to local colleges to see if they have any middle level outreach programs. In fact, more and more universities in the country now have outreach programs designed specifically to cultivate middle level interest from traditionally underserved populations.

You don’t even have to just focus on local colleges, as many colleges now have “alternative break” groups that are willing to visit your school for a week. In fact, my alma mater—the University of Maryland—continues to send a group of volunteers over their winter term to my former school in North Carolina to do service. Most large colleges in the country have an alternative break program, which is a win-win exchange. These colleges are looking for community partners to teach their students about education, while your school benefits by having a week of volunteers to help and to teach your students about college. I’ve also found that the volunteers are always happy to bring college shirts to give to our students as part of their trip.

It’s never too early to have students research information about colleges. One year, I gave my students the assignment to research the college of their dreams and to design a poster with information about the college, including average GPA and test scores required, so that they would remember what is needed to earn admission to college. Students presented their assignments to the class and then we hung the posters up in the classroom so that they would see them every day as a reminder of their college dreams. I even had one student who wrote the name of his dream college on the top of every assignment he handed in to me as his way of reminding himself to only submit assignments that he felt were top quality, as a way of putting him on track to earn acceptance to that college.

Just as you might need to teach students important vocabulary about science or history, it is just as important to teach them about the vocabulary of college. We cannot assume that students will learn this outside of school. While my parents knew they wanted me to go to college, when it actually came time to apply, they, being immigrants, did not know all of the technical jargon to help me. It was important for me to have a counselor at school who took the time to teach me about the difference between early decision and early action, about grants versus loans, and about all of the other intricacies of applying to college.

Another fun assignment is to have students interview a college graduate about their college experience and report back to the class about that college and what else they learned from their interview. For students who may be the first in their family to go to college, this can be a scary assignment; it’s helpful to have a list of other teachers who have volunteered to help, as well as other people in your network who are willing to be interviewed, especially if they are in different professions that students may also be interested in learning more about.

While college may not be the right fit for all of your students, I strongly believe that it should always be a choice that students have the opportunity to make. Besides making sure that all students have access to a rigorous education so that they are academically prepared for college, giving them exposure to college campuses, graduates, and vocabulary will further inspire a college-going culture. Similar to anything that is taught in school, students will only learn what they are exposed to, so if you want them all to have the opportunity to attend college, we need to explicitly teach them about it.


Patrick Wu is a senior educational adviser for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The Foundation has awarded more than $200 million in scholarships to more than 2,600 students from eighth grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive educational advising and other support services. To learn more about Cooke Scholarships, please visit www.jkcf.org. Applications are now open for the College Scholarship Program and the Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship. The application for the Cooke Young Scholars Program opens in January 2020.