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College Readiness and Small Conversations

By Victoria Onori Bowman

When discussing access to post-secondary education, many people focus on the financial barriers that exist for so many prospective students. And while this is a hard reality, there are also many other barriers keeping so many from attaining a higher education. During my time with the access subgroup, we’ve worked hard to narrow down the definition of “access.” It’s been tough, and I have to say that it’s still in constant flux — shifting and changing. There are so many factors that affect accessing a post-secondary education, that it’s also hard to narrow down the solutions and policy recommendations.

A factor that we’ve been discussing at length is college readiness. For me, readiness is not only defined as being academically ready, but emotionally, socially, and culturally ready as well. Experts recommend preparedness start early. According to Patrick O’Connor, director of college counseling at the Roeper School in Michigan, “A holistic approach to understanding colleges might begin as early as elementary school.” In addition, the American Council on Education (ACE) helped to create a "Pre-College and Career Readiness Curriculum for Students and Their Families," which encourages “high schools [to] invest in the creation of [an] educational environment [which] intentionally seek[s] to remove barriers that prevent all students from pursuing postsecondary education." ACE reports that, “based on feedback from school counselors who piloted the materials during 2016-2017, it was concluded that these lessons were useful as early as middle school and throughout high school."

If the idea of introducing college to children through a formalized curriculum is recognized as essential for all students, then it could benefit their families as well. This in turn could encourage families to have “small conversations” at the dinner table or in the car where college is discussed as a possibility and an option. Those already engaged in these conversations realize they are valuable because they are informal. Each and every prospective student (and their family) can benefit from this type of education and bonding — whether the conversations are between traditional-aged students and their parents or teachers, adult learners and their families, or transfer students and their advisors/success coaches — they can often make the difference between success or failure in college.

Growing up, there was never a question of whether or not I would attend college; it was an unspoken expectation. I never thought of myself as a first-generation college student until I became an adult. It was then that I realized how lucky I was that my parents believed education to be a priority. For them, being able to put their children through college was a measure of success. We didn’t know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and federal grant money. My education was paid for by my parents with no assistance.

When I tell this story to my colleagues in higher education, they usually stop, as if in shock, and stare at me in disbelief. How did you not know about the FAFSA? How did you not know to take out loans? How did you not know how to apply to college? My answer is simple. We just didn’t.

I went to a small Catholic high school, and I now believe that there was an assumption that all parents and students knew the various ways to make college accessible and affordable. Although my parents took a different route and started off in the military, they still believed that education was the key to success. And although my parents grew up in a time when only the lucky few could even consider attending college, through many “small conversations,” they were able to help me understand the importance and advantages of a higher education.

Fast forward to today. The American mindset that college is the key to success still exists, yet so many are still in the dark about how to access college or any post-secondary education. Dissemination of information is difficult, even with the internet and the best efforts of schools. As an adjunct English and composition professor and success coach, I always tell my community college students that there are many kinds of smart — and, despite what they think, I’m not nearly all of them. Sure, I can analyze literature, but I can’t build an engine or take vital signs. That’s why the definition of access is so important. Post-secondary education does not only equate to a four-year degree from a “traditional” college. For some, it may mean an associate’s degree from community college, a certificate of proficiency in entrepreneurship, or a trade school degree in HVAC. But whatever post-secondary education a prospective student wishes to pursue, the dream would be that they have accessibility.

In my subgroup, we realize that access is inherently intertwined with the Forward50’s other focus areas. Not only does a postsecondary education need to be accessible and affordable; but institutions and the various governing parties need to be accountable and transparent throughout the educational process as well. We have been tasked with providing innovative solutions and policy recommendations that can break down barriers to make college accessible to all prospective students — no matter their demographic or socioeconomic status. We are up for the challenge.

Catch up on any past Forward50 blog entries you may have missed.