The landscape of higher education in the United States has evolved rapidly over the last several decades. Colleges and universities where classrooms were once filled almost exclusively with men now grant the majority of their undergraduate degrees to women, and the number of minorities earning degrees is on the rise as well. College attendance is up across the board. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1999–2009, enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased by 38%, and much of that growth was in full-time enrollment.
Clearly, great strides have been made in the accessibility of a college education in this country, but room for improvement remains. In February 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 30% of Americans over the age of 25 now hold bachelor's degrees. While this figure is commendable in that it represents an all-time high for the country, one must bear in mind that it still means the majority of the adult population lacks a college education. It's up to parents and educators to ensure that the percentage of high school students who go on to both attend and graduate from college continues to rise.
College counselors are in an ideal position to help cultivate an environment in which college is not merely an option, but the option. Read on for a few ideas to help you motivate your students and foster a decidedly college-bound mindset . . .
- Offer individualized attention
As much as possible, give your students individualized attention so they can ask questions and you can monitor their progress. Obviously, this can be tricky if you're managing a large number of students, but any one-on-one time you can squeeze in is better than none at all. Keep tabs on and discuss your students' grades, GPAs, class selections, and attendance records. Note any problem areas that could negatively affect their college applications. Discuss their collegiate aspirations early on. If a freshman or sophomore already has a particularly competitive school in mind, lay bare the admission requirements so he or she can spend the next few years working toward meeting them.
If you have students who have no interest in attending college, present them with some cold, hard facts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 9.4% among those with only a high school education, but that figure drops to 4.9% for those holding bachelor's degrees. Those who went to college also earn about 40% more than those who only finished high school. These staggering stats might help stoke an apathetic student's ambition.
- Pay special attention to students who are less likely to attend college
Though the percentage of all population groups attending college is on the rise, there are still certain students who will statistically face more obstacles on the road to higher education. Economically disadvantaged, minority and international, first-generation, and learning and physically disabled students are among those who must overcome challenges that other applicants may not have to worry about. These students in particular will benefit from individualized counseling sessions in which you stress that a college education is by no means beyond reach.
Financial hardships, though seemingly insurmountable, can be tackled with the FAFSA, a thorough scholarship search, and a college list that's heavy on quality, budget-friendly schools where students can get a great education without breaking the bank. Students struggling with language barriers should be encouraged to work hard in any ESL classes or programs they're taking, prepare for the TOEFL exam, and, if applicable, meet with officials in the international offices at the schools to which they are applying. A school counselor may be a first-generation student's single source of college guidance, so make yourself as available as possible to answer their questions, allay their concerns, and keep them motivated. And you can help students with learning or physical disabilities research colleges and universities that offer the most services for their needs.
- Set goals
Create challenging but attainable college-minded goals for you, your students, and their teachers. Encourage all students to complete a certain number of AP classes--and take the concomitant exams--before graduating. Offer an enticement, such as a movie period or field day, if all students in a given class achieve a specified GPA. Work in conjunction with teachers to ensure a certain percentage of your current seniors are accepted to college. If not already in place, consider adopting an incentivizing plan for perfect attendance, such as exemption from an exam in courses in which students didn't miss a single class. And though you wear many hats as a high school counselor, strive to devote as much time as you reasonably can to college planning and advisement, and set your own personal goals to that end.
- Get parents involved
You can't be there to hold your students' hands 24/7. Once they leave school for the day, it's up to their parents to keep a fire lit under them. Find ways to maintain contact with parents and keep them apprised of their children's progress, upcoming deadlines, and other important information regarding the college admission process. Meet with them individually if possible and offer parent nights focusing on various topics, such as juniors, seniors, the transition to college life, student athletes, and financial aid. Consider creating a monthly e-mail newsletter with information on what students in each grade are working on at various points in the school year and what they should be focusing on in their college applications. Encouraging parents to play an active role in their children's college plans and keeping them informed about the process will ensure your students have a strong support team that will help them keep their eyes trained on the prize.
- Develop strong college preparatory programs
Work with teachers and administrators to ensure your school has an appropriately challenging college preparatory program and a sufficient offering of AP courses. Find ways to work the concept of college admission as well as SAT/ACT preparation into the curriculum. Make certain that incoming freshmen understand the mechanics of AP courses--that they aren't merely more challenging but can translate into free college credit. Make sure juniors and seniors actually go on to take their AP exams and understand what they need to do to receive college credit once their scores come in. Keep a list of registration deadlines and exam dates posted in your office for the SAT, ACT, and various AP subjects.
- Demonstrate the benefits of a college education
You can sing the praises of a college education until the cows come home, but there's a chance your words alone aren't making a dent. Demonstrate the results of earning a degree by bringing in alumni from your high school who have gone on to college and successful careers. Have them discuss their own college admission experience, their time on campus, and they think life might be like had they not gone at all. Hold career days so students can see the types of jobs for which they may be qualified if they pursue various degrees. Have professionals speak with students about the necessary courses of study for their respective fields, their work/life balance, and what kind of income they can expect. And help your students plan their college visits. Seeing how fun and liberating campus life can be will serve as an added incentive when things like SAT vocabulary and application essays are getting them down.
- Prepare students for the SAT/ACT
It's never too soon for students to begin studying for the SAT and ACT. They can and should be building their vocabulary, writing, and math skills for these exams as early as ninth grade, if not sooner. The information and strategies necessary for the SAT/ACT are best absorbed over a long period of time rather than crammed into a few frantic months or weeks. Encourage your sophomores and juniors to take the PSAT, which will help them prepare for the SAT and see where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Plus, juniors may qualify for the National Merit Scholarship Program based on their scores. Ask your students if they feel they are preparing sufficiently for the exams in their classes or if they would like to seek additional tutoring. Keep a list of SAT, SAT Subject, and ACT registration deadlines and testing dates posted in your office. Help low-income students take advantage of fee waivers. And ensure your students are taking their tests within a reasonable timeframe to meet their colleges' application deadlines.
- Suggest community college as an option
As you may well know, not every student will graduate with the qualifications to get into a four-year school. Others simply may not be emotionally ready to face the rigors of college life and a full course load. For such students, community college may be an acceptable option. They can work on their basic classes and, if necessary, bring up their grades. Smaller campus sizes and the ability to commute from home may be appealing to students intimidated by large universities, easing the transition when they transfer. And they can take a few electives and join some student organizations to explore their interests before deciding on a major. Community colleges are also a great way for students to save money for a few years before transferring to larger four-year schools. Some colleges and universities even have articulation agreements, which streamline the transfer process from two-year schools.
- Promote and participate in professional development
Though you may spend the lion's share of your days focused on making your students attractive candidates for college admission, don't forget to spend some time working on yourself. Network with your colleagues and other educators to share the challenges you're facing and successful tactics you've employed. When possible, attend conferences and other events to keep up with what's trending in the profession and the ever-changing world of college admission. Stay on top of education- and college-related news, paying particular attention to things like changes in financial aid policies. And encourage the counselors and teachers you work with to stay similarly engaged in opportunities for professional improvement.
- Offer counseling office resources and events
Make your office the place for students to get the information they need as they navigate the college admission process. Maintain a thorough and up-to-date counseling library and make sure it's easily accessible. Request current catalogues from the colleges your students most often attend. Consider creating and printing out or e-mailing a monthly calendar of important dates and deadlines. Offer group counseling sessions for various types of students, such as those applying to public or private schools, students in the top 10%, community college applicants, and student athletes. And, as previously mentioned, host parent nights and career days to maximize the scope of your influence.
This list is a start, but it's by no means exhaustive, so keep the conversation going. Maintain an open discussion with the counselors and teachers you work with and brainstorm more ways to promote a college-bound environment at your school. Years from now, you'll be able to look back and know that you contributed to an increasingly educated and professionally successful society. Now go forth and counsel with confidence.
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