In The New York Times Magazine cover story, Paul Tough addressed the obstacles facing disadvantaged students head on.
“If you want to help low-income students succeed, it’s not enough to deal with their academic and financial obstacles. You also need to address their doubts and misconceptions and fears. To solve the problem of college completion, you first need to get inside the mind of a college student.”
We would go one step further and say that, to increase diversity on campuses, you need to get inside the mind of a high school student. And that requires a partnership between colleges and organizations in the communities where students live.
For low-income and first-generation students, just deciding to apply to a competitive college is a big step.
At Bowdoin, recruitment of these students is both a priority and a challenge. Students need to see themselves as rising professionals. They need to believe that they can adjust to environments that are more homogenous and wealthier than they have ever experienced. They need to know that they are capable of writing application essays, handling interviews professionally and completing the complex financial aid process — frequently with minimal input from parents.
Students aren’t born with this knowledge. Wealthier students learn these lessons over many years and find countless opportunities to practice the communication, self-advocacy and adaptability skills that are necessary for success.
But low-income students have fewer natural opportunities and, instead, many of them apply to colleges beneath their abilities, which actually make them less likely to graduate. For these students, community organizations can provide vital opportunities to learn, practice and internalize these skills while they are still in high school.
The Opportunity Network (OppNet), a New York City nonprofit, gives disadvantaged high school and college students a multiyear experiential program that equips them with the skills and awareness to not only gain admission to competitive colleges but also succeed on campus.
For two years in high school, students attend weekly workshops where they practice soft skills that are hardcore requirements for success.
They learn how to build a supportive network, how to ask for advice without feeling ashamed that they don’t know the answers already, how to advocate for themselves in professional and academic contexts. They practice all of these skills at meetings with professionals from dozens of industries so they arrive on campus ready to introduce themselves to a dorm full of strangers from wildly divergent backgrounds or seek out tutoring when a chemistry test doesn’t go as expected.
Their families attend special workshops to introduce them to the idea of sending their children away to college. They talk frankly about diversity. Students recognize that diversity on many campuses is still a work in progress, but they also realize that they can be part of the solution. They feel like valuable contributors, not second-class citizens.
OppNet staff members work closely with admissions officers at colleges like Bowdoin throughout the process to provide insight into students’ academic backgrounds and abilities. These dialogues, which are built upon significant trust and sensitivity, make it more likely that students apply to and are accepted by schools that are appropriate for them. They help admissions staff members to make informed decisions about applicants who come from high schools they are unfamiliar with and whose life experiences are atypical of their overall applicant pools.
Before OppNet students leave for college, they attend a highly experiential weeklong college transition boot camp where they practice the routines of college life like choosing appropriate courses, making an appointment with a professor for extra help, tracking down a missing financial-aid check and dealing with roommate conflicts. These are the types of minor problems that can start a downward spiral if they are not managed well.
By the time they arrive on campus, students have internalized the belief that they are prepared for both the academic and social challenges of college, that help is available and that they are as deserving of their place on campus as any other student.
Today colleges are finding new ways to deliver and reinforce the same messages. Bowdoin recently launched a specialized advising system for students who may benefit from additional support. Students are invited into this program but not required to participate — it is an enhanced opportunity, not a remedial program. Students connect with one another and with a program peer mentor in a variety of settings and activities, learning from each other’s success and challenges.
In addition, Bowdoin hosts organized activities, like workshops to build writing and study skills, just for this group. Faculty members who sign up to be advisors in this program are trained to work with students in an intentional and intensive way, getting to know them beyond the classroom and supporting their academic trajectories.
Bowdoin also hosts a retreat for multicultural students so that they have opportunities to talk honestly and openly with their peers. Commonly, younger students share their deeply felt fears, only to learn that older students have gone through the same experiences and have overcome the same fears. Students return to campus buoyed by the knowledge that they are not alone and connected to peers who can mentor and support them.
To level the playing field for low-income and first-generation students we need to do more than provide outstanding academic opportunities, we need to arm these students with the skills they need to aim high, conquer their fears, recognize their strengths and get the support they need to succeed.
These skills will lead to more than strong GPAs; they will prepare students for satisfying and successful careers.
Whitney Soule is director of admissions at Bowdoin College. Jessica Pliska is founder and CEO of The Opportunity Network.