When asked about their future aspirations, a recent participant of the 2016 Youth Leadership Summit mentioned, “I always knew that I wanted to go to college, I just didn’t know how to get there, until I got involved with this program at my school to help me.” This student is just one of over 100,000 other students in the United States with similar thoughts and feelings. One functional area that has rapidly gained a lot of momentum, in terms of workload and student services in recent years, has been College Readiness and Access Programs. Specifically, offices and departments that are geared towards aiding students whom seek information about postsecondary education and help bridge the opportunity gap among underrepresented and underserved populations have increased within the past 20 years.
Higher education attainment has been a priority for politicians in order to remain competitive in a global market, however, due to constant increases in tuition and fees, many students and families are discouraged because it poses a financial burden to the overall household. These college readiness programs help alleviate some of the stresses these students and family members experience by providing information early on about scholarships, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), Pell Grant eligibility, application fee waivers, financial literacy in college, etc. Many of the administrators work either on high school campuses or universities and colleges that partner with local surrounding high schools and similarly to student affairs practitioners working directly with college students, these individuals utilize much of the same skill sets as academic advisors, admission counselors, and event coordinators.
Modifications to law and policy at the national level have helped make this possible. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed by President Obama in 2015, builds on key areas of progress within the education system in recent years. Examples include, increases in high school graduation rates, decreases in dropout rates, and an increase in postsecondary enrollment. With a focus on the goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers by creating college and career-ready standards, educators and administrators have measurable objectives to track progress and they can make adjustments to programs and services that may not be resulting in desirable outcomes.
The U.S. Department of Education has supported various programs financially to ensure that the academic pipeline from middle school to post-baccalaureate is a reality for the students it serves. Of all the programs, some common and larger entities include TRIO (originally comprised of three programs: Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services, now made up of eight smaller programs) serves close to 800,000 students and GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) serves close to 600,000 students. Many state departments, in addition to these federally funded programs, have smaller state-run initiatives that also support college readiness. Even non-profit organizations, such as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) partner with government-funded programs to prepare students for success in high school and beyond has impacted more than 1.2 million students and over 30,000 educators (AVID FAQ, 2016; AVID's Impact, 2016).
Due to the growing support for federally-funded programs that work diligently to provide students and families with information about higher education, institutions are and will soon see greater numbers of first generation and Pell Grant eligible students on their campuses. College Board reported that from 2005 to 2015, Pell Grant recipients grew by 55%, totaling over 8.2 million students currently (CollegeBoard, Trends in Higher Education, 2016). Factors for this increase include the the rise of tuition across the nation, the increase in overall Cost of Attendance (COE), and changes in household income as a result of the recession. Administrators on college campuses should ensure that programming and services adhere to this changing demographic and provide transitionary support for these students from matriculation to graduation. An aim for many institutions of higher learning is to retain its students, and as the needs of students’ change, so should the programs and services. Also, as the cost of postsecondary education continues to increase, many of the students who participate in these college access programs seek community college as their initial institution of choice. This could result in increases in transfer enrollment for 4-year institutions and a greater need for transfer services.
Recently, I had an opportunity to attend the 2016 NCCEP (National Council for Community and Educational Partnerships)/GEAR UP Conference in Washington, D.C. and work closely with a group of roughly 150 high school students from various states at the Youth Leadership Summit (YLS). This delegation of students represented the larger number of GEAR UP students across the country and just like many students from privileged backgrounds, these students had goals, dreams, and aspirations just the same. It was phenomenal hearing the stories of these students and the obstacles they have had to overcome in their young lives and how determined they were to seek a better life. Many of them knew that college was a solution to that better life.
Roughly 90% of the students attending YLS qualified for free or reduced lunch at their school and were representing several marginalized identities. However, several of these students had already achieved great success, such as owning their own business at 16 years of age, graduating with an associate’s degree as a junior in high school, and being the salutatorian of their graduating class.
A common theme surfaced when asking these students about their achievements and success, and it was largely due to programs like GEAR UP and having that support network that not only guided, but also challenged these students to go beyond their comfort zones.
Having worked in higher education for a few years, and as I start my new role with Seeds Training as their College Readiness and Programming Specialist, I realize more so now that continued collaborative efforts with college access programs and student affairs administrators could be strengthened. I wholeheartedly believe that an understanding of higher education trends coupled with knowledge of intersectionality of identities play such a vital role in the overall success of students. Higher education administrators are experts in this line of work. A common frustration for GEAR UP alumni whom attended the annual conference mentioned that they received a lot of support prior to starting college but once they began, support was almost non-existent. One student even described the feeling as, “wandering around aimlessly in a big city—it was so overwhelming, I didn’t even know where to begin.”
The NCCEP/GEAR UP Annual Conference had nearly 2,000 attendees and it was incredible to witness so many educators, administrators, and parents that were so motivated and committed to work and volunteer with an organization that serves underrepresented students. I admire the work done in this respective functional area, moreover, I admire the students that participate in college readiness and access programs for their willingness to seek a better life for themselves. As a graduate of the GEAR UP program myself, I know that I would not be in the position I am today, if it weren’t for the work of so many individuals that work in this field and have paved the way for my own success.
Want more info on the GEAR UP program? Check out this video:
About the author: Joseph A. Granado a Texan native, originally from Midland, Texas, graduated with his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. After teaching high school Biology, Anatomy and Physiology in San Antonio, Joseph pursued his Masters of Science degree at Texas A&M University in Educational Administration. Joseph has worked in various functional areas within higher education including, Residence Life, Orientation and New Student Programs, Fraternity and Sorority Life. In the fall, Joseph worked in Thessaloniki, Greece for Northeastern University as an Assistant Site Director and is currently the College Readiness and Programming Specialist for Seeds Training, the #1 Provider of Youth Training Worldwide. He has a passion for travel and enjoys helping students pursue their educational and career goals.