Why College Culture Matters

Adding Realism and Fuel to First-Time College Goers’ Dreams

From time to time, I ask my young children where they want to go to college. “Yale!” my daughter will exclaim, because I brought her a t-shirt from a conference in New Haven. “Northwestern!” shouts my son, because I’ve been promising a family outing to a football game.

Of course, their answers don’t really matter. What matters is that I ask.

Subtly but consistently, I’m conveying to them that I believe in their potential, that I have high expectations, that the long hard slog of schooling has a payoff and a purpose, that their dreams are attainable.

I didn’t have that. My middle school years are a blur of boredom and detentions and wanting to give my middle finger to the whole experience. I failed ninth grade, spectacularly.

Not that long ago, some of the best and brightest Chicago Public Schools students didn’t have that either. When my colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research surveyed students about their aspirations and plans, even valedictorians answered the question, “Who has talked to you about your college plans?” with a jarring, “No one.” We’ve come a long way in terms of instilling a college-going culture, but we have a long way to go in terms of college persistence and completion: back in 2006, only one in eight CPS students was estimated to earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.

For me, a change in context changed my life. I moved in with my more-educated grandparents, started going to a better school, and saw my rock-star aunt—then a high school junior—getting heaps of college brochures in the mail. I wanted that. I was surrounded by family and educators who made me believe it was attainable. And I did it, doubling up on courses for the next two years to earn admission into a competitive college.

Now, as part of my work at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, I’m working to help shift the college-going context for students across Chicago. This week, a new partnership was announced [THURSDAY 11/6/2014] to do just that in 34 public neighborhood elementary schools across Chicago’s South and West Sides. The Success Project will start working more intentionally with middle school students beginning in January to instill the academic behaviors, social supports, culture and beliefs designed to spur greater high school and college success.

If you’ve ever tried to get a 13-year-old to think longer-term than their next trip to the mall, let alone get them excited about having impeccable attendance or navigating the dizzying high school application process in Chicago, you know the task ahead looms large. But research suggests this approach works. Here’s why:  First, when on-the-ground educators are provided real-time data about how kids are performing, students can benefit enormously. When CPS high schools started paying attention to freshman-year grades and attendance—whether students were “OnTrack” for graduation—dropouts plummeted across Chicago. Middle school grades and attendance matter a whole lot too, and we’re taking everything we learned about using data to drive collaborative, individualized problem-solving down to the middle grades.

Second, The Success Project uses a proven curriculum, 6to16, to drive a structured, ongoing dialog starting in sixth grade about what it takes to prepare for and succeed in college. In schools where it’s used today, it seems to be working. A recent Chicago Tribune ranking listed UChicago Charter as having the second highest rate of college enrollment in the Chicago area, just behind Walter Payton College Prep, for the 2011-12 school year. UChicago Charter also leads the city’s non-selective-enrollment high schools in college persistence rates, a measure of how many students complete at least a year of college.

Third, the idea is not to drop in or add on. Overburdened teachers and counselors don’t need yet another thing they have to do. They need help building their own skills and support in changing their own school culture, so every school employee works every day to instill a college-going expectation and mindset into the fabric of the school, the students, and their families. Every single thing happening within each school should reinforce the connection between what’s happening that day and what it means for students’ futures.

Finally, we need to build on one of the greatest strengths of young people: the power of imagination. Middle schoolers are delightfully articulate dreamers. Initiatives like The Success Project are about supporting the natural inclination to dream big, and not let barriers, real or perceived, curtail them. It’s about harnessing those dreams into concrete action plans, making connections between where they want to go and the choices they can make that will get them there.

No initiative will be able to buy every CPS middle schooler a t-shirt or take them to a college football game. I can’t promise they will all be as lucky as I was. But I know that schools could and should be doing a lot more, and earlier in their lives, to set higher expectations for what all students can achieve.

John Gasko, CEO (2014-2016), UChicago Impact