The amount of time and effort students and parents put into planning, and how early they get started, are important factors in achieving access to postsecondary education. Schools play a key role in making planning resources, information and opportunities available and accessible. Educators believe that students should start post-high school planning in ninth grade or even earlier, but relatively few students report starting earlier than 10th grade.
Young adults who did not continue their education after high school were more likely than others to say they wished they had started planning earlier, and were also more likely to report that they would do something different if they could start over again. Most reported that they would go to college. Among the most helpful approaches that schools take in preparing students for postsecondary education, educators list:
– spending class time on college and career planning
– consistent, ongoing individual attention or advising
– goal-oriented personal learning plans, and
– college fairs or parent information nights
Educators working in schools that separate the responsibility for postsecondary education planning from other tasks within the guidance office gave more positive assessments of their schools’ ability to provide post-high school planning assistance for students of all ability levels. From a list of planning activities, students and young adults rate guidance counselor meetings as the most helpful (although they rate parents and teachers as more helpful with planning overall). Parents rate college campus visits, closely followed by meetings with guidance counselors, as the most helpful activity. Meeting with their child’s guidance counselor is the only planning activity that parents of General/Voc Prep students are as likely as other parents to have done. While virtually all current students report having regularly scheduled meetings with guidance counselors, only 74% report having had a serious discussion with a guidance counselor or teacher about their plans for the future. Only two-thirds of the young adults surveyed reported that their high school offered regularly scheduled guidance counselor meetings.
Discussions about access to higher education often focus on financial considerations, and many of those surveyed expressed concern about college affordability and financial aid. Nearly three-quarters of parents surveyed say they are discouraged by the rising costs of college, but very few (only 7%) say their child won’t be able to attend because of costs. Roughly one-third of students and parents say that it is likely that money will be the determining factor in whether or not they (or their children) go to college. About one half of students and fully 68% of parents say that money will determine which college they (or their children) choose. Three in ten young adults report that money was a very significant factor in determining what they did directly after high school, regardless of where in they live. Students who went on to a two-year college, technical or trade school were roughly twice as likely as those who went to four-year college to say that money was a very significant factor. Most students (78%) express a willingness to take on loans in order to pay for college. While most parents (72%) support the idea of their children incurring debt to finance college, fewer (59%) are willing themselves to take on education loans for their children. Although most students and parents report that they will need significant financial aid to pay for college, some do not believe that they will qualify for scholarships or grants to help pay for college. Parents who did not go to college and parents of General/Voc Prep track students are more likely than others to believe that saving for their child’s college education would jeopardize the family’s eligibility for financial aid.
Students who are proactive in college planning and those who have parents who are actively involved are at a distinct advantage in terms of fulfilling their postsecondary education goals. Many students and parents, however, appear to be approaching the post-high school planning process passively, waiting for schools or others to prompt their planning efforts and for information to come to them. Another key implication of these findings is that first-generation college families are in need of particular attention and resources. Students without a parent or sibling who has gone to college face great challenges in forming college aspirations and in navigating the college planning process. Every first-generation student who successfully moves on to college represents a family no longer facing this barrier in the future, so resources invested in this area are likely to reap great rewards. Some students appear to have experiences in high school that are very encouraging and supportive of their postsecondary education goals. These experiences combine a high level of proactive involvement in both school and planning by the students themselves and their parents with effective programs and resources provided by the school.
Broaden the notion of “college” and promote the idea that college is for everyone, not just a select few. College planning activities at school should include all the postsecondary education options in order to improve educators’, students’ and parents’ knowledge of and access to information about two-year colleges and technical college programs. Where feasible, separate the responsibility for postsecondary education planning from other functions in high school guidance offices to help them better assist students at all levels with post-high school planning. Provide more structure and more options for post-high school planning: incorporate planning into class time, assign students to a teacher who acts as an advisor throughout high school and schedule regular meetings, and make some planning activities mandatory. Improve post-high school planning and expectations for all students, particularly those in the College Prep and General/Voc Prep academic tracks: start planning earlier-no later than ninth grade, individualize planning activities, and include parents in the process. Help parents and students to understand the importance of being proactively involved and to identify the concrete steps they can take to stay on course.
Creating an environment of support for postsecondary education is critical. Schools, families, community members, and employers can all play important roles.
– Schools and families can send and reinforce the message that college is for everyone.
– Community members and businesses can serve as mentors, open their doors to interns, and help to coordinate service-learning projects.
– Employers can provide information and resources for college and financial planning, and provide employees with time off to attend guidance counselor meetings and visit college campuses.
– Colleges and universities can expand outreach in their local communities and invite students and parents to campus to provide as a hands-on introduction to college rather than as a recruiting tool.
Finally, better information and resources are needed to effectively address families’ concerns about the cost and affordability of college. Our analysis points to three specific steps that could make a positive difference.
– Demystify the system of college financial aid and correct some parents’ misperceptions. In particular, some parents expressed the belief that saving for college limits a family’s eligibility for financial aid. The government and colleges should make the rules they use to determine financial aid eligibility more transparent.
– Improve knowledge about student loan programs and borrowing options for parents. Families may not be sufficiently aware of available loan subsidies, and may need advice about “safe” borrowing levels for students.
– Make more need-based scholarships and financial aid available. We heard concern from students that they will not qualify for scholarships or other financial aid. Only a very small proportion of students can be at the top of any given class. Broadening the availability of scholarships will provide a practical resource to more students who need financial help while reinforcing the critical message that college is attainable and appropriate for them.
Given that a person with a college degree earns over $1 million more in his or her lifetime than a person with a high school diploma, the economic benefits to the state of improving the college-going rate are tangible.While boosting the proportion of adults with college degrees will also require improving college retention and promoting continuing education for the adult workforce, there are several concrete steps that can be taken. Students and parents readily acknowledge their responsibility for planning, but many- particularly those who are the first in their family to attend college-do not appear prepared to do this on their own. Here are our suggestions:
– Capitalize on the key role guidance counselors play in postsecondary education planning. Where feasible, separate post-high school planning from other responsibilities in high school guidance offices.
– To create more opportunities for parental involvement in planning, develop alternate schedules that would include evening office hours for some guidance counselors.
– Expand post-high school planning efforts to include high school faculty, not just the guidance office. More individual attention and more time devoted to planning is part of the consistent oversight and input that students say that they want and acknowledge that they need.
– Encourage parents’ employers to participate.
– Enlist the support of local businesses. Businesses can give students much-needed opportunities to conduct career exploration.
– Encourage community members who can provide resources – whether it’s sharing their experiences with college preparation, providing financial planning expertise, or offering to serve as mentors – to contact local high schools to offer that help.
– Get local colleges involved. These experiences provide students with a more tangible sense of what college is like and an opportunity to see themselves as college students.
– Those with resources to provide or support scholarships – individuals or corporations.
– Colleges and governmental agencies should continue efforts to clarify and publicize financial aid eligibility criteria as well as information about student and parental education loans. High schools and community/business resources can help provide the kind of individual attention that is needed by students and parents in navigating the world of financial aid. This kind of support is particularly critical for first-generation college students.