Road map offered to help kids get to college

ROCHESTER — President Barack Obama set a challenge for the nation to lead the world in the number of college graduates by 2020.

While acknowledging it won’t solve Obama’s challenge, Professor William Tierney from the University of Southern California offered a road map to help low-income students get to college. Tierney, who also is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, offered his ideas during a lecture at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education on April 14. In order to meet the president’s goal, he said that a total of 1 million new students must enroll in college each year.

While some high schools remain drop-out factories, there are enough that have students who could go to college but don’t because of concerns about financial aid or because they don’t know how to maneuver that process, Tierney said.

"These students are like low-hanging fruit," he said. "We all have to figure this out. We’re all in this together."

Information from Tierney, a visiting professor to the Warner School, was familiar to some of the people in the audience from the Rochester City School District.

"All of it can be done here," said Gladys Pedraza-Burgos, the district’s chief of youth development and family services. "Some of the things he talked about (echo) for the district."

His recommendations mesh with the city school district’s new strategic plan that has as one of its goals preparing students academically to succeed in college, life and the global economy. The district also has created an early college high-school program. The district’s board of education also recently adopted a portfolio plan that addresses the problems with the district’s lowest-performing high schools by redesigning them or phasing them out.

Tierney recently led a panel for the U.S. Institutes of Educational Sciences on the topic "Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do." It’s part of the U.S Department of Education’s "What Works Clearinghouse," he explained.

"College access outcomes have important social and economic consequences," according to the panel’s report, which can be found at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/higher_ed_pg_091509.pdf. "College students earn more than those with a high school degree and are more active in their communities."

The panel came up with five recommendations, which Tierney explained during his April 14 lecture. "It’s not rocket science," he said. "You have to be able to remove the barriers (that keep students from attending college)."

The recommendations are:

  • Offer courses that prepare students for college-level work and ensure students understand what constitutes a college-ready curriculum by ninth grade. "If students do not begin taking college preparation courses in the ninth grade, they will be less likely to enroll in college," according to the report.

  • Test students throughout high school so they are aware of how ready they are for college and provide help in overcoming deficiencies identified by such testing.

  • Surround students with adults and peers who support their aspirations to attend college. "There’s a strategy to applying for college," Tierney said. "How do we help students with that?"

  • Assist students in completing critical steps for college entry. Such steps include filling out college applications, Tierney noted.

  • Increase financial awareness and help students apply for financial aid. "What is justifiable debt?" is an important question, he said. "It’s an issue of financial literacy."

"All students … will rise to expectations set for them," Tierney noted. "We have to set expectations and make it possible."

East High School Principal Anibal Soler said that the panel’s recommendations are on target, adding that schools must use them to remove the barriers these students face in getting to college. In a subsequent e-mail response on April 29, Soler said that Tierney’s anecdotes about the mentoring he personally has done for students also provided a lot of insight.

"The barriers for our population are largely socioeconomic, which is what Professor Tierney’s mentoring program (helped overcome) for his students," Soler said. "We could make huge improvements with our students, but it will take individuals, regardless of political affiliation, to have the ‘will’ or ‘ganas’ to make it happen. Doing this work well will not make you the most popular person with others, because you will push back at the system and uncover a lot of inequities."

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