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Blocked access and leveled aspirations

Randall F. Clemens

Last week, I recounted the amazing story of Diane, an undocumented first-generation college-goer. If Diane’s story illustrates the promise of higher education, my discussion today highlights the peril of blocked access and leveled aspirations.

I have been privileged to chronicle a critical moment in the lives of teenagers: the senior year in high school. The year is a celebration of endings and beginnings. It marks the end of their high school careers and, to some extent, their childhoods. Each activity, from the first day of school to the last, is imbued with a sense of finality as the end marks the beginning of college and a promising career. 

This year, I interviewed sixty male teenagers at three high schools in a low-income neighborhood. The participants divided into three categories: High-, middle-, and low-achievers. At each level, I asked about college and career aspirations. Admission standards for the students’ target schools rarely matched their grade point averages and standardized test scores. For instance, a teenager listed NYU when his scores indicated that he was more likely to attend UC Santa Cruz. Or, a student listed a Cal State when he was more likely to attend community college. The most solemn appraisals often came from low-achievers, who said something like, “I just want to get to a college.” Unfortunately, they did not know the required steps to get there.

That was fall. Now, it’s spring. For many students, letters of rejection have mounted. They know they will not be attending their dream schools. Some have changed their plans. Rather than attending NYU, they plan to go to St. John’s and then transfer to Columbia or NYU. Others are going to UC Santa Cruz. The third and largest group is still undecided. Their vague plans include going to community college and then transferring. 

Overall, for the high-achievers, the application process has been humbling. They realize that they are not as competitive as previously thought. However, they gained admittance to a decent college and from now until college graduation they have time to make up the difference. For the middle- to low-achievers, the process has been deflating. Today, they enter a critical time in their quest for higher education and social mobility. They will either do what it takes to go to college and their life will be markedly different, or they will not.

What is my point? Secondary and postsecondary education institutions have failed these young men. There is no reason such a high stakes process should be so unsystematic or damaging. 

I have identified two improvements; I invite you to think of more. First, schools at every level need to do a better job of building the infrastructure to get teenagers from high school to college. It is no longer enough to talk about creating a college-going culture. The supports need to be there in order to promote college readiness. Offering college level courses that lack rigor or extracurricular activities where the students meet infrequently and little is accomplished do not equal college access or success. Those classes and activities pad resumes, but do little to get teenagers to college.

Second, the process to get to college should be transparent. At every step of the way, students should know where they stand in relation to college matriculation. Relatedly, data sets are robust enough to provide benchmarks for students. Districts use a range of elementary school data, including students’ attendance and grade point averages, to predict which students are at-risk of dropping out of school. We ought to use the same predictive modeling for college-going. From the data, schools could offer intervention programs for students who are not on pathways to success. That means providing classes before and after school as well as enrichment opportunities throughout the year. We have to capture students’ interest and create conditions for learning, not store promising, capable young men in the corners of classrooms.

We are increasing injustice by waiting until students are eighteen years old to tell them that they do not have the competencies to matriculate to college. And worse, we are allowing strangers to tell them via rejection letters.