Preparing students to make the right college choice

February 3, 2016

Laura Perna offers suggestions for preparing students, and their families, for college.


In our global, technologically driven economy, people increasingly need at least some postsecondary education to find a place in the workforce. At the same time, budget crises in school districts across the nation are forcing schools to reduce the number of counselors, shifting the burden of college advising to teachers and other school staff. This is happening even as research shows student background continues to be the best predictor of who will find a place in higher education.

Penn GSE professor Laura Perna studies access to higher education — and what has happened as the number of counselors working in schools shrinks. She offers these suggestions for preparing students, and their families, for college.

Ensure that students understand the educational pathways associated with various careers.

A student who wants to design and build things will likely need an engineering degree. Many jobs in government and business require law degrees. Although college may not be for everyone, all students should understand different career options, and the education required to move into those careers.

Talk to students about the demands of college level work.

Too many college freshmen arrive on campus unprepared for the jump in workload from high school. Emphasize to students that credit-bearing courses will be more rigorous – and encourage them to develop the skills they’ll need to succeed at the next level. Meet with area college leaders to develop a better understanding of their expectations for incoming students.

Offer academically rigorous courses and ensure that all students have the opportunity to participate in these courses.

The students least likely to attend college are often the least likely to take rigorous courses, including at least algebra II and honors and advancement placement courses. But courses like these can be key to academic readiness for college. Encourage students—especially those who don’t have a family history of higher education—to push themselves by taking the most challenging, yet appropriate, courses when they move to the next grade level.

Incorporate college-related information into the required curriculum. Teachers must find ways to fill that knowledge gap when fewer counselors are available.  One strategy is to work the different types of college “costs”— both visible and hidden, including interest on loans borrowed and the availability of financial aid — into the lesson. Try to find a way to also share that information with the students’ families.

Promote students’ readiness for college all along the educational pipeline.

The path to college completion begins long before the decision to apply for admission to college in the senior year of high school. No matter what grade level a teacher is working with, it’s important to talk to students and families about staying on track for college. That includes finances, so families can think about what resources might be available.




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