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Updated on Mar 22, 2011

There’s no argument that A students ought to go to college, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But what about students who make Bs and Cs?

According to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, only 63% of low-income high school students in the second achievement quartile go on to college, as compared with 90% of their higher-income peers.

Gloria Nemerowicz, President of Pine Manor College just outside of Boston, recently organized a summit for presidents of small colleges (the Yes We Must Coalition) to brainstorm ideas about how to make college accessible to middle-range, lower-income students. “It’s really President Obama’s call to increase graduation rates in this country, and we wanted to organize this group to see what can learn from one another and how we can support one another,” Nemerowicz says.

“If we’re serious about supporting first-generation college goers, we need to be holistic in our approach to learning,” Nemerowicz says. “Services have to be available to help the students, and this includes learning resource supports, health and wellness supports, and lots of specialized intervention for emotional issues.” Nemerowicz makes the point that these students experience a significant identity shift during the college years, and in order for them to be successful in completing their college education, they need a strong and reliable support structure in place.

Greg Darnieder, Special Assistant to the Secretary on College Access at the U.S. Department of Education, says in addition to the work of individual institutions, national programs such as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and College Summit, are critical in preparing students in the academic middle for the rigors of college.

“These programs help students set up habits of discipline in terms of being a good student—that it’s okay to ask for help, getting kids comfortable working in groups, to build self confidence… All of this fits in with the framework the President has outlined—that every adult in this country has to have another piece of paper beyond a high school diploma that is recognized by the broader society as having value,” Darnieder says.

John Happs, Coordinator for Counselor Services with College Summit, explains that this program uses a counseling model to help students understand what they need to be doing at any given point during their senior year. Happs explains that many of the students they work with have tremendous barriers to success. “We help them understand that those hurdles can be temporary,” he says, “that they don’t have to stop them from getting an education.”

What can parents do to pave the pathway to college? Here are a few suggestions from Darnieder, Happs, and the folks at Pine Manor College:

  • First and foremost, get your through high school. Make attendance a priority in your family, and help her get into good study habits. Understand that in order for your child to succeed in school, she needs to attend daily, have time to study, and have healthy eating and sleeping habits.
  • Stay on top of your child’s academics, and push him into zones where he doesn’t feel comfortable. Provide support for those zones. If you can’t provide the support personally, help them to find programs such as AVID or College Summit.
  • Get involved in the school as much as possible, and model asking for help when you need it. Even if English isn’t your first language, show your child that you are not intimidated to ask questions and seek out the information you need to set her up for success.
  • Meet with the high school counselor to get the information you need to prepare your child for college applications.
  • Talk about and expose your child to different careers. Help her think about and articulate what she is interested in and where she thinks her strengths lie.
  • Expose your children to colleges and universities.
  • Teach your child financial literacy. Teach her about credit cards and paying bills on time. Help her to understand that not all debt is bad debt. Some debt is necessary and can help young people to achieve their dreams.
  • Take the time to learn about and help your child understand the FAFSA and various financial aid packages and options. If you need help in understanding this, be proactive about getting the help you need.

What’s something else you can do as a parent? If you’ve been through the system with your own child, consider volunteering at your local high school to help another child (who might not have English-speaking parents, for instance) figure out the college application process. Call the college counselor at the high school to find out how you can help.

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