Why the Senior College Checklist will Never Change Outcomes for First-Generation College Students


It was mid-February in our high school in Chicago. Acceptance letters were rolling in from colleges across the country.

I saw Alex, one of our seniors, walking and laughing with friends in the hallway and stopped him with a big smile, “Alex, how exciting! I heard you’ve been accepted to seven colleges!”

“Yeah,” Alex suddenly lost his enthusiasm. “I haven’t heard from University X, so I am not sure I am going.”

“Is that your first choice?” I asked, wondering if he lost sight of his accomplishment.

“No. But I was kind of waiting to get denied,” Alex muttered, as he hung his head and stared into the floor.

“So, let me understand this. Seven colleges accepted you. You haven’t heard ‘no’ from your eighth. And you think that they will deny you. And if you they do, that means that you should not go to any of the colleges?” I recapped, hoping that as Alex heard it, he might realize the flaw in his logic.

“Yeah. I didn’t think any of them would accept me,” he added without breaking his downward gaze.


Experience Informs Logic

Shocking? Perhaps to the counselor, teacher, school leader, or professional working with students who will be first-generation college-goers.

But for Alex and many of our students, this thinking is logical. His entire life, Alex had been told he was worthless. Society. The media. His neighborhood, friends, and elementary school teachers. And in his case, his family. It went so much further than not being college material. Over and over, the messages he received built a narrative that he had nothing positive to contribute.

So seven colleges telling him he was college material were grains of sand weighed against mountains of negativity.


Information is Not the Problem

We – educators – often assume that our challenge is that students and families lack information. 

As such, our high schools follow a near-identical informational approach to post-secondary guidance. Counselors give families and students a checklist of actions for junior and senior years. If they are lucky, counselors might conduct a few classroom visits, host an optional financial aid night, and set up 2-3 individual meetings with students to cover a few logistical items. Then, counselors expect students to drop by their office to complete the many complex steps in the process.

This approach harbors two flawed assumptions. First, only students who respond to the information desire post-secondary options. And second, students that don’t take advantage of services or follow through with actions must lack the maturity required for college success.


Redefine the Problem

Let us revisit the case of Alex. Seven colleges accepted him for two reasons. His academic profile was strong enough, and our high school had an application process that did not allow any student to slip through the cracks. Even so, he was a high risk to not land on a college campus.  

This is because the real challenge we face is belief.

If a student does not believe they are college material, then informational approaches like checklists and come-and-get-it services can never be effective. Why would a teenager ever take any initiative for opportunities they do not believe are for them?

The first step is to acknowledge that hard-working counselors, school leaders, and teachers doing what has always been done cannot meet the needs of our first-generation and low-income students.


Actions to Raise Awareness

First: Do you know who your first-generation college goers are? Do you know what your students believe about their post-secondary futures? If the answer is no, then start with a simple survey given to all students.

Second: Conduct one-on-one meetings or small focus groups with students to unearth beliefs. Use student voices and the information you collect to raise awareness within your school community.

Third: Ask the question, ‘How can we shift from providing information to changing belief?’ Ask it everywhere – in leadership and department meetings, the staff break room, student council, with community partners, and at parent nights.

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We are comfortable with an informational approach. It is the way the system has worked for decades. But it cannot continue if we desire to meet our students’ needs. For that reason, re-engineering our system begins by acknowledging that the central challenge we are trying to solve is belief.

Matthew King advises and coaches district and school leaders to improve the academic and college outcomes for students and communities with the greatest untapped potential. Visit CollegePrinciple.com for more information.