Building bridges to college for traditionally underrepresented students

Higher education programs across the country are reaching out to high school students—and their teachers—to forge pathways from high school to college for low-income and historically underrepresented communities. To achieve this goal, early college high schools, which allow students to earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit or an associate degree, are reducing academic, cultural, and financial barriers to higher education, EdNC reports.

Early college students are more likely than their peers to enroll in a postsecondary institution, according to research from Julie A. Edmunds, Fatih Unlu, Elizabeth J. Glennie, and Nina Arshavsky, co-authors of their new book, Early Colleges as a Model for Schooling: Creating New Pathways for Access to Higher Education. The key to early colleges’ success? They address what the authors call the “misalignment” between high school and college.

Related: Gates Foundation provides grants to early college, dual enrollment programs >

“In high school, it is the school’s responsibility for the students to graduate, because it’s mandatory,” says Arshavsky, “but in college, it’s the student’s own responsibility to graduate and succeed, because it’s optional.” This difference in expectations creates multiple barriers for students, especially first-generation students and those from underserved or underrepresented communities.

To correct this misalignment, early colleges in North Carolina ensure students’ high school courses align with college courses; offer college admission counseling; and teach students time-management, study, and self-advocacy skills necessary to thrive in college. Early college students also don’t have to pay for their college credits, which allows them to save money and time if they decide to pursue a four-year college degree. Some early colleges are also located on college campuses, giving students an opportunity to connect with college students and get exposure to college life. By supporting students to make sure they complete their college courses successfully, early college “changes [students’] expectations, Arshavsky explains, “and shows them that they can succeed and really changes their perception of what they can do.”

Helping students see themselves in the college environment

Non-profit organizations are also empowering high school students from underserved communities to see themselves at college. USA Today recently highlighted a free virtual college advising program called Matriculate, which helps low-income students gain access to higher education. The program pairs high schoolers from low- to middle-income families with college student mentors, called Advising Fellows, who attend one of the program’s 16 participating universities. Advising Fellows, trained to offer one-on-one college guidance, provide their high school mentees with the information and support that they need to navigate the college application process. High school students must apply to participate, with virtual advising restricted to families making less than $80,000 per year.

Yale University junior Lisbette Acosta says an Advising Fellow encouraged her to apply to the Ivy League school. “I found that there was so much value in having someone who had the lived experience of being in college,” Acosta, then age 17, told USA Today. “It really gave me a good sense of like, ‘Do I see myself in this environment? Is it too much for me?’” Acosta has now become an Advising Fellow herself to make “higher education more accessible for students like me.”

How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline
At Georgetown University, The Pivotal Network is working to make higher education more accessible to high school students from underserved communities by supporting and elevating the work of high school teachers who play a crucial role in shaping the educational trajectories of first-generation students. Housed in The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education, The Pivotal Network connects high school teachers, or Pivotal Educators, to professional development opportunities and offers a space for these educators to collaborate in partnership with colleges, professors, and students.

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