The industry of organizations focused on helping underserved students navigate college started with a focus on admissions: helping those students get into college. Realizing that helping students kick off their college journeys was not enough, many added services to help students persist through college to graduation. But how do educators, parents, and organizations help those students not just get into college and graduate, but thrive while there?
This has become a common story: A young person with relatively few resources beats the odds and gets into a top university just to fall by the wayside upon arriving. While their comparatively privileged classmates dive into extracurriculars, build relationships with professors, and thrive socially, underserved students do not know how to navigate and maximize their opportunities in the higher education environment. Perhaps they graduate (and the statistics capture that outcome), but they do not get the most out of the experience.
Secondary-school educators, families, and institutions of higher education can counter this trend by helping pre-college students develop what we might call academic self-empowerment. This means helping budding scholars develop a sense of the opportunities available to them (in college and beyond) and how to take advantage of them.
Let’s review the data on academic self-empowerment and explore how educators can help students evolve into the drivers of their own collegiate success.
Why academic self-empowerment helps underserved students
Underserved students have what it takes. Oftentimes working with less than average resources and navigating a variety of culturally, geographically, and socioeconomically diverse learning environments, they overcome significant challenges to make it to college. The resilience and determination that they developed along the way will serve them well throughout their lives. However, college life brings a new set of challenges: communicating with advisors, getting the attention of busy professors, exploring a wide range of peer-based networking opportunities, and maneuvering competitively for research and extracurricular positions.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that underserved and underprivileged students are considerably less likely to finish their college degrees than their peers. Research also shows that thoughtful approaches to pre-college preparation can reduce these numbers and even empower students to make the most of the range of opportunities college offers. These studies reinforce the need for underserved students to have resources that enable them to feel prepared and confident to thrive in a college environment.
This is where academic self-empowerment comes in. More and more resources are available for educators, parents, and students to work together to ensure that students flourish. For example, a 2021 study showed that pre-college programs increase students’ familiarity with the level of academic content they will encounter when they enter higher education. How can educators and parents work with students and use these resources to succeed?
How educators and parents can help students develop academic self-empowerment
Without a sense of what resources are available and how to get in touch with individuals ready to help, students can feel overwhelmed and alone. To get connected, communication is key. For example, students with more privileged educational backgrounds are often comfortable communicating with their advisors on a frequent basis and asking questions about which courses to take, what scholarships exist and how to apply for them, and what resources are available to help them develop academic research and writing skills. They are also familiar with professors’ expectations for classwork and office hours. Pre-college resources that help underserved students learn the complexities of college communication are vital for navigating this hidden curriculum.
Research opportunities — specifically, accredited college-level research opportunities — are another area where educators and parents can help. Colleges and universities are full of chances for students to develop research skills on their own or work with scholars and practitioners. These opportunities can spark an idea for a career path, lead to an internship, cultivate a connection with a potential mentor, or generate data or laboratory skills. The key is to know where to look and how to ask.
There are many pre-college programs and opportunities that provide structured research with scholarships. Parents and educators can help students explore their academic interests, explaining the range of opportunities that are available, and helping them find and apply to those opportunities with need-based scholarships. They could also suggest high schools that include research through the extended essay in the IB Diploma Program or AP Capstone program.
A final way that educators and parents can help students is with a focus on relationship development. College is a place to make lifelong friendships, but it is also a place to begin peer-to-peer networking, learn to navigate job fairs, and build connections to thought leaders and practitioners. According to a 2018 survey, 35 percent of professionals report getting their job through a professional contact — and college classmates are always potential contacts. So, giving students the chance to interact with their peers in research and professional environments before they enter higher education goes a long way toward empowering them to capitalize on college.
Underserved students are used to overcoming challenges. By familiarizing these students with the opportunities they will face in college before they get there, parents and educators can empower them to navigate the new hurdles coming their way.
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