Breaking Down Barriers to Higher Ed

I’m sure they are out there somewhere, but I don’t know of any prominent female role models who came from poverty and didn’t realize the value of education when they were young. I’ve read the stories and biographies of so many successful women. While they also overcame their impoverished circumstances, they had a leg up in a way that I don’t feel ever existed for many of my peers and me. Someone told them that there was more out there, that education could help them break free, but who was it that let them in on the secret?

Below, I outline six ways in which school counselors can break down barriers to higher education and ensure access for each of our students.

1. We don’t know what we don’t know.

When I took the ACT in high school, I didn’t realize that it was an important exam to get into college. I just knew it was a test I had to take. I hadn’t realized that my entire future (ostensibly) hinged on the results. College was a foreign concept for me even though my mother had told me I would go to college; it was a vague and nebulous idea.

I’ll bet that I couldn’t have named five colleges in my senior year of high school. Seriously. The entire concept of college was so novel that I had no idea how to apply, when to apply, or what would make me a desirable candidate. Looking back, I think that if it weren’t for my best friend in high school, I probably would not have made it to college. Fortunately for both of us, my friend’s uncle had decided to attend college as an adult, and he’d shown her (and me) the process to apply.

2. Assume they don’t know and act accordingly.

We assume that people know how to do things because we know how to do them, but we must remember that not everyone shares our perspective or past experiences. When I worked as a high school counselor, I realized that the process by which low-income students were to request an additional free college entrance exam like the SAT exam was opaque and cumbersome. I made it a point to make that information and process much more streamlined for my students.

As a high school counselor, my job has was to break down the barriers that stood between my students and their dreams–the ones they didn’t even know they had yet–the ones they hadn’t even dared to dream. I wanted to make it easy for them to know about GPA cutoffs for college scholarships, how and when to apply to school, the difference between early admission and early decision, how to write a killer essay, how to apply to college for free, and so much more. I wanted them to know that more was possible and I built it into our curriculum through classroom lessons, parent nights, and virtual lessons for the entire school.

3. Remember the power of words.

In “Becoming,” Michelle Obama shares a story about her high school “guidance” counselor telling her that she didn’t think she was “Princeton material.” I feel a vague sense of jealousy because I didn’t even know that Princeton existed when I was in high school, much less that I wasn’t fit to attend. I am embarrassed for my profession that a school counselor told a student they weren’t worthy of getting into a school. Biographies are littered with similar tales from other prominent and successful individuals who were told they weren’t “enough.”

I’m equally embarrassed to admit that I also made that mistake during my first year as a school counselor. It was only one time, but it still haunts me. I told a student that given her scores, she might find college difficult and might not be the right “fit.” She sought me out a year later to tell me that she’d made it through her first year of community college and that I was wrong. I am grateful with every ounce of my being that she didn’t listen to me. A different kid might have taken what I’d said and thought, “Yeah, this lady is right; I don’t have the scores. I can’t go to college.” and they’d have never tried because of me. But this girl tried, and despite me, had succeeded. Most kids believe what you tell them about themselves, make sure that what you have to say is encouraging.

4. Is the environment equitable?

Walk into any of your gifted, honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate classes and make sure that all of your students are represented proportionally to their presence within your school. There are likely systemic barriers preventing students of color from getting into those advanced classes if you see a predominately white honors class in a diverse school. What are those barriers? Is it a recommendation from a teacher, a parent advocate, or some arbitrary ranking system? What can you do to remove those barriers? Be an advocate for your students.

5. Systems can make or break a school.

It’s all about systems. The systems we have in place in our schools determine who has access and who is oppressed or disenfranchised. What systems are in place to ensure that each student has access to information about post-secondary education and careers?

Is every student in the school met through classroom lessons, website information, small groups, or a mentoring program? There are so many methods to ensure that students have the knowledge they need, and the school must make sure that it is accessible to all students.

I am a nerd and often notice systems in my daily life. I discovered Bronfenbrenner in grad school and have been obsessed with the idea of systems ever since. When I go through the drive-through, when I pick up my dry cleaning, I see systems when I go online to order a pair of shoes–they are everywhere. Systems can make the situation easy or difficult for us to navigate.

Particular attention should be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or precludes […].

Urie Bronfenbrenner

Have you ever gone through a buffet line and realized that if they’d put the tables further away from the wall or the drinks on a separate table, that the entire ordeal would have been more efficient for everyone? If so, you see systems too. We have to bring that thinking to our schools.

6. What systems can be improved?

How can we make processes of accessing resources and information easier and more functional and efficient for everyone? Inertia is often at play in our lives, and we tend to do nothing because it is the easiest choice–see Newton’s first law of motion. Schools need to capitalize on that tendency of human nature to do nothing. Consider the processes that you could automatically “opt” students into in your school.

I’m familiar with several schools that have a file drawer in their office with all the scholarship information inside. However, to access this information, students have to know that the file drawer exists, physically go to the office, open the drawer, understand what they are looking for, and decipher that information. I would argue that the “file drawer” is a flawed system because it requires too much initial force. To ensure that each student has access to the same material, a school representative could send the information out in an email. (If you really want to get fancy–translate the e-mail into the most common languages spoken at your school.)   

Remember that little things make a huge difference. When you send an email telling someone to “click” a link, include the link! Including the link seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people send out information that others have to go searching for when it could have been made easy to start.

If you are a school counselor reading this, then you are a systems architect. You are the person behind the curtain, pulling all the strings to make the lights turn on, and the curtains move. You might not want to hear this because the burden is heavy, but when you are developing your program to meet ASCA standards, you are developing a framework in which stakeholders can be uplifted or oppressed. Be careful with your power and good luck.