Helping Disadvantaged Students

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A couple of weeks ago, my blog included an op ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper. The focus of the editorial was a critique of the proposed federal government scorecard for colleges. My main argument was that not all colleges are the same and not all college students are the same. Therefore, a unitary system is neither fair nor accurate when determining an institution’s success.

Most readers agreed with my perspective. But many readers objected to one of my contentions that all students deserve a college education. Some argued that not every child in America deserves or is qualified to attend college. I had been thinking about this issue when I came across a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.

Whether or not every high school graduate should attend college, no one I know believes that disadvantaged students of ability should be denied access and opportunity. And this research study affirmed strategies that seem to be extraordinarily effective with this population.

For the past 22 years, a non-profit organization called College for Every Student (CFES) has focused on “raising the academic aspirations and performance of underserved youth so that they can prepare for, gain access to, and succeed in college.”  CFES currently works with 20,000 students in 200 rural and urban schools and districts in 24 states.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of CFES and its programs. Using a sample of 1,100 middle school students from 21 schools in 10 states, they found that 75% of the participants in the CFES program planned on attending a four-year college compared to only 5% of the students in their control group.

What are the strategies used by CFES? The three key elements of the program are early exposure to college, mentoring, and community service leadership. Participants in the program are selected by the individual school and are named CFES scholars. At the young age of middle school (or even elementary school), CFES scholars learn about the possibility of attending college and are encouraged to begin planning for this important step in their educational lives.

Over the course of several years, CFES scholars interact with mentors both in their schools and on college campus visits to receive guidance and to become familiar with the world and life of a college student. CFES scholars are also provided with the opportunity to exercise leadership in the community in order to develop both skills and confidence.

What is clear from studying the programs and services of CFES and the corroborating data from this research study is that the result is a student who gains confidence in his or her ability to succeed in college, and an inherent expectation that this is the logical and necessary next step after high school. In addition to the ultimate benefit of significantly more CFES scholars attending college, there is also ample evidence that while in the program, these students improve their academic performance, improve their behavior and improve their attendance.

For many disadvantaged young people in this country, a college degree is only a dream. While there will always remain challenges to earning a college degree, programs like CFES are helping us to better understand how to make some dreams become a reality.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Wednesday, 23 April 2014