3 Ways to Make Sure All Families See College as an Option

I am the principal of the same high school I graduated from – one of the largest high schools in Mesa, Arizona. The majority of our population is Hispanic, and we have a high free-and-reduced-lunch population. Many of our students are the first in their families to apply to college – just like I was.

We take our role of setting our students up for postsecondary opportunities very seriously, and we’re seeing incredible gains. I’ve seen so many students come in as ninth graders, with parents who said, “We want our kid to go to college, but we have no idea how to get there” – and then by senior year, they have a scholarship for a full four years of tuition, living at home or even with room and board paid for out of state.

This is possible because we invest deeply in our counseling team, and they invest time and energy into making sure every student and their family sees a path to college as a possibility.

Here’s how we partner with families to break down 3 barriers to college:

Barrier: The road to college can feel confusing to families and students. 

Solution:  Start early, meeting with families during students’ freshman year.

Our counseling staff holds freshman family meetings and junior family meetings.

We pull in every freshman family individually to map out high school plans with the students and their caregivers. During these first meetings, counselors focus on building rapport and establishing a collaborative relationship. We identify student goals, develop academic interventions as needed, focus on establishing study habits and time management skills, encourage extracurricular and school involvement, and then support students in developing four-year plans aligned to their strengths, interests and academic and career goals. Click here for the informational handout we provide to families of ninth graders.

In meetings with juniors, we focus on supporting students with their transition to post-secondary schools and careers after graduation. Click here for a general resource list we provide to students and families when students are in 11th grade

For a lot of students, those two meetings are all they need to stay on track – but those touchpoints also help us identify students who might benefit from some additional interventions.

Barrier: Families and students don’t realize how much financial aid is available – even for students who don’t have perfect grades.

Solution: Share specific scholarship and financial aid opportunities available at local schools, and help students set goals to be eligible.

We learn in those first meetings that most of our students want to attend college – and most families want that for them, too, but they’re often convinced they don’t have the financial means to make that happen. A lot of students also don’t see themselves as the type who can earn an academic scholarship, because they don’t get all As – and their parents share those assumptions.

We talk with families about opportunities offered by our local university, including need-based merit scholarships that are available to anyone with a 3.2 GPA or higher. This creates a concrete incentive for academic achievement. (The resource we shared above also includes information about scholarships and aid.)

At our freshman-year meetings, we talk with students and families about Ds and Fs on their junior high transcripts, and we make sure they understand that when they fail a class in high school, they have to retake it. We also talk about how failing can get in the way of some scholarship opportunities – both academic and athletic – and we let students know that we’re here to support them so that doesn’t happen.

Barrier: Families have some fears around filling out the FAFSA.

Solution: Conduct intentional outreach to foster trust, dispel myths and highlight the benefits of the FAFSA.

For a while, our district wasn’t seeing a high enough percentage of FAFSA completions among our students. A lot of our students have parents who don’t have Social Security numbers, and there’s a fear around putting out any personal information. Part of our work is creating a culture that says, “School is safe, and we’re here to help you, not hurt you.” The meetings we have with families go a long way, as do other measures, like offering bilingual services and accommodating families’ schedules.

We also talk about dollar amounts when discussing the benefits of the FAFSA. When we show families the financial support they might be eligible for, just based on their financial situation, they see that doors are open to their students – and they feel empowered to take that step to fill out the FAFSA.

For more information on supporting students with the FAFSA, explore this resource library.

Building a culture around postsecondary education takes a big investment – but it’s worth it.

When it comes to building an enthusiastic culture around postsecondary education, it’s fun to do celebratory things, like inviting teachers to wear college gear every Monday and putting up banners and college posters. That stuff can start conversations, and it has a role to play in culture-building. But I also believe that putting up a sign that says “Go to ASU” isn’t going to make the difference in whether a kid can get to ASU.

The real work is hard, ongoing and resource-intensive – and partnerships with staff and families are key. It takes time and commitment.

I keep pouring myself into this work because it’s worth it. Like so much of this work, it comes down to relationships. We’ve got four years with these students, and we’ve got to make them count.