There should be five pillars to college access and success, similar to the Five Pillars of Islam, essential for the successful and lifelong practice of Islam. For all students, but especially for disadvantaged and underrepresented students, having a guide to the five most necessary ingredients for college entrance, matriculation and graduation is long overdue.
I should know. Between six years of Humanities in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools in the ’80s, twenty years off and on as an instructor and professor, and a decade’s worth of nonprofit work in fields like civic education and K-16 education reform. So many students — especially those without the financial means and the academic preparation necessary to be successful at the college level — fail for lack of knowledge and lack of access to such knowledge as well.
Research Council’s Questions That Matter (2006), the book Double the Numbers (2004) edited by staff from Jobs for the Future, as well as the work of innovative organizations like The Posse Foundation, below are what I believe are the five ingredients of higher education access and success, in order of their importance.
1. Social Preparation: Students must be prepared for the world outside of their towns, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, apartment buildings, homes and individual families. Most disadvantaged and underrepresented students are inadequately prepared for the cultural, social class, philosophical, ideological and spiritual differences between them and most traditional college and college-age students. Leadership development, critical thinking (and not just for academic purposes), a sense of belonging, a passion for active learning are all the seasonings needed to help students become socially comfortable in a postsecondary setting. Academic preparation is one important aspect of a student’s social preparation for college, but it’s not the only one.
2. Academic Preparation: This is of obvious importance, but in terms of higher education access and success, it’s actually overemphasized. Or at least, the acquisition of facts and the assessments used to determine how successful students were at assimilating these facts has been overdone. This high-stakes testing phase in the history of American education has also put too much of the task of preparation on individual teachers, and not enough on the students themselves. Academic preparation for college requires broad knowledge. But it also requires students to be able to analyzes and interpret facts, to begin to put facts together in combinations that cannot be derived by simply reading a textbook or from a teacher’s lesson plan. That requires good-to-great teachers, administrators, and students.
3. Parent, Family and Community Engagement: This aspect of K-16 educational success never gets the attention it deserves. Active parents and adults in schools can and does create the atmosphere necessary for students’ academic and social preparation in the college access and success process. There are times, of course, in which parental engagement can evolve into abuse of staff and teachers, particularly with parents and families who have unrealistic expectations of their children and their children’s teachers. For disadvantaged and underrepresented students, however, it’s of the utmost importance for parents and other concerned adults to be engaged in this process, to apply pressure on schools and students when necessary.
4. Financial Means and Aid: This is a nice phrase, but the fact is, student loans account for nearly three-fifths of the funds for a four-year degree for most students. The real issue here is to not only take advantage of scholarships, application fee-waivers and need-based aid like the Pell Grant and SEOG grants. It’s also to use social preparation and engaged parents to find additional funds and to agitate for more need-based state and federal aid. Or to use academic preparation to obtain the substantial private and state-level merit-based scholarships to cover the skyrocketing costs of college.
5. Will to Power: Researchers and practitioners rarely discuss this aspect of postsecondary access and success. But the bottom line is, the difference between success and failure for any student really is how much pain they are willing to endure to be successful in finishing a college degrees. Even with the proper academic preparation, excellent social preparation, solid financial aid and consistent parental and community engagement, it’s ultimately up to each student to decide to overcome whatever obstacles they face, especially once they become a college student. While willpower alone isn’t enough, it’s still a necessary ingredient to make the other four ingredients jell.
Had I known even half of this back in the day, I wouldn’t have been homeless my sophomore year at Pitt, struggling financially most of my time as an undergrad, or reluctant to take on leadership roles prior to my senior year. But my will to realize success and graduate overcame all of that, making the difference between where I am now and where I was so long ago.