Can We Make Going to College Cool?

As mentioned on Monday, peer networks drive a high school’s college-going culture, and there is a fascinating dichotomy we see among the students in the urban and rural schools in which College Summit works. When engaged individually, students say that they go to high school for their futures and that they want to go to college. When engaged collectively, they are less focused and intent on the goal of achieving college and career success. This is particularly true of the males, and even more strikingly, the African-American males.

According to the “Reclaiming the American Dream” study, college application sessions alone show little or no effect in increasing college enrollment rates. However, college application assistance can be effective when supported by deeper culture-building strategies. In fact, the study cited data finding that students are four times more likely to attend college if the majority of their friends also plan to attend than those who do not.

We have seen over and over that building true college culture within a high school happens bottom-up, with the students, among the students. College Summit trains and provides leadership development to influential students, and charges them to work collaboratively with educators to build college culture within their school. As our Peer Leaders like to say: “Who is most influential to a 17 year old? Other 17 year olds!”

The training is held in conjunction with a four-day summer workshop on a nearby college campus where students also learn about the college application process. Students work with volunteers on writing personal statements that showcase their strengths and future aspirations and learn about financial aid and scholarships options. These students then return to their schools and spread their college-bound experience to their peers.

A peer leader we recently spoke with embodied the kind of “influencers” needed in every high school. She was from a New York City high school and attended a 2007 summer workshop. It was clear after just a few minutes that she was as dedicated as she was enthusiastic. She explained that when she returned to school last fall, she offered to help co-teach some of the lessons from the College Summit classes, including sharing her own experiences with classmates. She also took a lot of pride in pushing her peers to finish application essays, keep up with College Summit class curriculum and get all the forms filed on time. She said of her and another peer leader, “We were always looking over everyone’s shoulders at how far along they were” and “we had to stay on them” to be sure they were meeting deadlines. As of this month, the young woman has already been accepted to three colleges, making her the first in her family to ever to go.

If you’d like to learn more about what our workshops look like, the New York Times has an article on our peer influencer workshops, highlighting the “inner work” students do, through writing, to clearly see their goals and potential. Once they find that place of confidence, they are inspired to “infect” their classmates in the same way. You may also want to check out the Times’ audio slideshow of the writing process.

–Guestblogger J.B. Schramm

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