At a recent neighborhood gathering, a grandfather mentioned that his grandson was going to college to study construction trades. Another neighbor asked, “Can you do that in college?” A few days later during a school faculty meeting, a teacher lamented he wasn’t sure our first generation college students could go to college. “Is there really a way to prepare them?” he asked. Since this years’ summer break started, two parents and five students contacted me at home to ask if I could help them negotiate the next steps to college. The answers to the above questions are—yes, yes, and yes!
Where does Oregon stand with 40/40/20? Oregon is in danger of becoming “under educated” for the workforce. Approximately 60% of Oregon’s students attend college after or during high school. Nationally the average is 68%. Oregon’s 60% puts it far below the ambitious 80% set in 2011 by the state legislature in Senate Bill 253. That law outlined a plan for 40% of students to graduate from a four year college, 40% from a community college, and 20% to complete high school.
According to the Oregon Blue Book, education in Oregon is falling behind the nation. In most other states, the current generation of young people is more educated than their parents. In Oregon, however, adults aged 25–34 are less educated than their parents’ generation, with fewer earning certificates or degrees beyond high school than their parents.
Who does go to college? The tendency to go to college tracks along economic lines. Students from the wealthiest neighborhoods go to college at higher rates than those in lower socio economic and rural areas. Most students from families who have attended college have an inside track for the college process. They know how to fill out the FAFSA form, apply for scholarships, understand a college catalog, and go through the application process. Colleges aim their recruitment efforts in a direction these students “get." It is those first generation college students, students with limited English speaking parents, and undocumented students that colleges are missing.
Getting underserved students into college is a challenging learning process for the adults who help them. I am one of those adults. I teach a college preparation class in a rural alternative high school.
YES, you can go to college and get a degree in construction trades. College is evolving. This spring I helped a student apply for a community college to get a degree in electrical trades. I helped another prepare for a degree in cosmetology from a community college. Some four year colleges let students design their own program of study or select among options.
One of the first hurdles for first generation college students is accessing information about what a college degree can encompass.
A quick look at just four of Oregon’s seventeen community colleges illustrates the wide range of degrees and certificates. Welding, early childhood education, CIS health information technologies, criminal justice, EMT, nursing, veterinary assistant, historic preservation and restoration, seamanship, automotive technician, construction trades, electrician, sea vessel operations, addiction studies, aviation science, dental assisting, exercise science, manufacturing technology, massage therapy, aquarium science, diesel technology, cosmetology, interior design, and landscape technology are a sampling.
Sometimes not understanding there is a college degree for whatever they want to study keeps some students away from college. I find I literally need to sit beside first generation college students and discuss the options. They need guided visits to colleges to see the programs. Having the information simply displayed in the hall or in a college brochure as many schools do falls short for these students.
Is there really a way to prepare first generation college students? Academic rigor is very important. It is one factor for students to enroll in college, it is another issue for them to succeed and graduate. Pushing students to excel (with proper scaffolding) gives them the self confidence they need to try college. I used to aim my college preparation class for juniors and seniors. I now enroll sophomores, and I had freshmen asking to be in the class. Seeing a clear purpose for the future propels them toward greater high school success. They understand why rigorous learning is important.
First generation college students need a trusted adult to walk through the process with them. At our school’s end of the year student awards ceremony, I sat next to a parent and asked if her son who had just applied for college was ready. She said she was afraid he wouldn’t go. I turned to him and asked if he was a little scared. He emphatically replied, “Yes!” We made an appointment to visit the college the next week.
First generation college students will become the independent students they need to be. First, many of them need some scaffolding and connection between high school and college. It is a partnership that many colleges neglect. Almost every college I take students and parents to visit hands information to us and tells us to go online and complete forms. Yes, in a few months the students will be able to do that, but not today. Today they need support.
Oregon Blue Book. (2013). Public Education in Oregon. Oregon Secretary of State. Retrieved from http://bluebook.state.or.us/education/educationintro.htm
- Professional Learning