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September 20, 2012
Helping Families Pave the Path to College: Supporting the Developmental Processes That Facilitate College Readiness
Mandy Savitz-Romer, Suzanne Bouffard
Tips & Tools From Harvard Family Research Project
Mandy Savitz-Romer is director of the Prevention Science and Practice Program and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Suzanne Bouffard is a research project manager and writer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this article, Bouffard and Savitz-Romer discuss findings from their recent book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success.
“I know that family involvement matters during adolescence, but what can I do that is appropriate and helpful?” We hear this question a lot from parents and educators alike. Adolescents are not just big children, and they’re not little adults, so the kinds of family engagement that are appropriate for them during this age period are unique. In particular, family engagement in children’s education takes new and significant directions during these formative years. One important role that parents and other family members can play during adolescence is helping their middle and high schoolers prepare to enter and succeed in college.
GOING BEYOND ACADEMIC FOUNDATIONS
The means by which parents can support this process during adolescence are more varied, and often more indirect, than many people realize and, ideally, build on efforts started during a child’s earliest years. By engaging their children in learning from birth and continuing throughout the school years, for example, parents help them attain the academic foundation—knowledge, grades, test scores—for college. But equally important, parents can also take steps to help children develop the social and emotional foundations that they need for college, including identity, motivation, and self-regulation. These social and emotional factors are essential to all parts of the college-going process, from college exploration to matriculation to graduation. Some of them, like motivation, are particularly important for helping young people tackle challenges and persist once they are in college. Given the importance of these social and emotional skills, it’s surprising that college access efforts have historically placed little emphasis on them, focusing almost exclusively on academics and financial aid. This is true when it comes to educators’ outreach to families about college as well; most such efforts focus on building parents’ aspirations for their children and providing information about financial aid.
To support young people on the path to college, educators should help families to understand that social and emotional factors are as important to college readiness as traditional academic indicators, and provide guidance in how to help their children develop skills in these areas. With support from teachers and counselors, family members can engage adolescents in activities that tap into the developmental tasks and competencies that students need to master in order to plan for and succeed in college. For example, when parents take time to discuss their children’s hopes and goals with them, they are helping them develop the motivation to pursue higher education and to see themselves as college students. When families help their adolescents set aside dedicated time and space for academic and college-related activities and encourage them to take responsibility for certain parts of the process (like planning campus visits and mailing applications), they are helping their adolescents develop self-regulation and agency.
HELPING FAMILIES SUPPORT THE FOUNDATIONS OF COLLEGE READINESS
Families from all backgrounds want their children to succeed and want to support them. But families who are traditionally underrepresented in the education system—ethnic minority families, low-income families, and parents who have not attended college—tend to be less familiar with how to access and prepare for higher education. Similarly, these families are sometimes unaware of how they can help foster the critical developmental processes—such as identity development, motivation and goal setting, and self-regulatory skills—that will help their adolescents succeed in college. But efforts that focus on parents’ deficits are not only unhelpful, they miss key opportunities to build productive home–school relationships and leverage strengths among family members. Effective family engagement meets all parents where they are at, supports mutual responsibility for educational success, and goes well beyond school-based events and PTO meetings. Educators need to help all families recognize that these processes are just as important as observable indicators of college readiness, such as grades, attendance, and knowledge about college requirements.
In our experience, there are many ways that teachers, counselors, and other educators can engage families—especially families who do not have prior experience with college—in supporting students’ developmental readiness for college. We explore these strategies, along with ways educators can work directly with youth to support these skills, in our book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success. The following are five strategies we describe in the book that educators can use to help families—especially families of first-generation college-bound students—pave the path to college by supporting developmental readiness:
These strategies can complement the many other college readiness efforts underway in middle and high schools, such as advisory periods, peer counseling, and assistance completing applications. When families, educators, and students all work together, their efforts can go a long way—and so can young people.
The ideas in this article are further explored in the authors’ book, Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success from the Harvard Education Press.1 The book explains how adolescents’ social, emotional, and cognitive development influences college-going, especially for first-generation college-bound youth. It provides concrete strategies for educators, counselors, community-based providers, and policymakers to go beyond academics and financial aid to help more young people get and stay on the path to college graduation.
1 Savitz-Romer, M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Ready, willing, and able: A developmental approach to college access and success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
This resource is part of the September 2012 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archive of past issues, please visit www.hfrp.org/FINENewsletter.