Barriers to College Access in Franklin County

This report investigates college access in Franklin County schools, with particular focus on prospective first-generation college students in Columbus City Schools (CCS). CCS is the largest school district in the state of Ohio, and faces the largest college access inequities in Franklin County. CCS represents 21 of Franklin County’s close to 90 high schools. Additionally, this report highlights I Know I Can, a nonprofit college access organization that works primarily with students in CCS, as an effective intervention.

In 2015, 27% of United States high school graduates came from families in which neither parent held a college degree, and 18% of graduates fell into the lowest socioeconomic quartile (Council of Independent Colleges). These students face distinct barriers in accessing higher education in comparison to their peers: a lack of support in understanding the processes of applying to and paying for college, less access to college preparatory curriculum and/or college counseling in high school, and lower performance on college admissions tests (Council of Independent Colleges, 2015). 100% of CCS students have access to free and reduced lunch and a majority of them come from families in poverty who more than likely have not had access to higher education (CCS, n.d.; CCS, 2014).

The most prevalent barriers to college access and success for CCS students are: (a) access to a high-quality college preparedness curriculum, (b) financial literacy regarding paying for college and applying for financial assistance (e.g., completing the FAFSA), and (c) culturally responsive college access programming.

Participants in the Young Scholars Program at The Ohio State University

Participants in the Young Scholars Program at The Ohio State University

College Access for First Generation College Students

Perna (2006) states that although postsecondary students received about $122 billion in financial aid from 2003-2004, Black students, Hispanic students, first-generation students, and students from low-income families are still disproportionately underrepresented in higher education. According to research by Hurtado, Inkelas, Briggs and Rhee (1997), a closer examination of the factors impacting representation include changes in higher education policies, as well as: “rising standards for high school achievement accompanied by more stringent admissions requirements from four-year institutions (Orfield, 1990), increasing reliance on student loans coupled with soaring tuition costs (Orfield, 1992; St. John & Noell, 1989), as well as sharp cuts to secondary and post-secondary budgets in urban areas (Orfield, 1992).”

Hurtado et al. (1997) found that by the end of 12th grade, close to half of all Black and Latino students had not submitted a college application. Hurtado et al. (1997) also found that by the end of 12th grade, 52% of students in the lowest income category had not applied to college.

Founded in 1988, I Know I Can is “the only college access program in Columbus and one of the largest and most successful in the nation” (2018). I Know I Can staff and volunteers work in each of CCS’s middle and high schools alongside counselors, to assist students in completing college applications, accessing summer camp opportunities, and receiving fee waivers for applications and ACT/SAT exam fees (Reid, 2007; I Know I Can, personal communication, February 28, 2018). They also work with school counselors to provide assistance to students and their families in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The Need for College Preparedness Curriculum

In a report for the National Center for Education Statistics, Choy (2001) found that nearly half of first-generation students were barely or not at all academically qualified to gain admission into a four-year institution. The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) outlines the necessary curriculum for students to take during their high school career to be prepared for college admission. The curriculum outlined on the NACAC (2018) website includes: (a) four years of English; (b) four classes of math, beginning with pre-algebra; (c) three to four years of laboratory science; (d) two years of social studies; (e) at least two years of a foreign language; and, (f) one year of art, depending on the institution to which a student applies.

However, the NACAC curriculum does not always align with the courses offered at individual high schools. The graduation requirements for CCS students are similar to those that NACAC lists, except for the absence of a foreign language requirement (CCS, 2016). Furthermore, depending on the prestige of a postsecondary institution, this curriculum could potentially satisfy only minimum requirements. Unfortunately, the requirements that NACAC provides do not always align with high school’s course offerings or graduation requirements.

According to the 2016-2017 Report Card for Columbus City School District, only 42.6% of the 2014 CCS graduates had entered college within two years of graduation, and from the 2010 CCS graduating class, only 13.4% of them had graduated from college within six years of their original start date (Ohio Department of Education, 2018). This suggests that an overwhelming percentage of CCS students who go to college are underprepared to be successful. Additionally, a low percentage of students meet key indicators in critical state subject tests like math and language arts. In 2016-17, only 19% of high school students met the 80% passing rate in Math I and only 11.7% met the minimum for Math II. In language arts, 33.3% of high school students passed English I and 29.6% passed English II. While 13.5% of CCS students participated in college preparatory coursework like Advanced Placement classes, only 5.5% scored a 3 or higher on AP exams (Ohio Department of Education, 2018) — meaning that those students will likely not receive college credit for those courses.

The Need for Financial Literacy

Another major barrier impacting college access and enrollment is financial literacy. With state and federal government budgets allocating fewer dollars to education, the costs of pursuing higher education are consistently growing (Department of Education, n.d.). Often, students do not understand the full college attendance cost until after they have already enrolled at an institution and receive their first bill. Increasing a student’s financial literacy while enrolled in high school could assist students in making appropriate decisions on financing their education, as stresses over financing higher education can lead to students dropping out later on (Joo et al., 2008-2009). Additionally, institutions should provide students with a more accurate number of what their higher education will realistically cost prior to applying to schools. Having access to this knowledge is important because students pay for college before receiving their degree, but only receive the benefits of a degree after they have graduated.

The FAFSA completion rates for the 2017 academic year across districts and schools illustrate the financial disparities in Franklin County. By June 2017, before students would have begun attending college or likely would have received a bill from their institution, CCS had an estimated FAFSA completion rate of 45-49%. By contrast,the more affluent Bexley City school district had a completion rate of 65-69% (United States Department of Education, 2018). These numbers suggest a disparity in the amount of financial knowledge that students from districts might take with them into their collegiate journeys, in correlation with the socioeconomic status of a district’s neighborhoods, despite all coming from Franklin County.

The Need for Culturally Responsive College Access Programming

Black man looking wistfully downNo coordinated effort exists that allows schools and organizations to adjust their programming and services, in order to accommodate the cultural needs of students from immigrant, rural, poor White, and college-adverse families in Ohio. When designing college access initiatives, it is important for CCS professionals to be mindful of different subpopulations’ cultural attitudes towards higher education.

At the time of her 2007 dissertation, Ohio State alumna M. J. Reid was a school counselor in CCS. Her dissertation explored ways in which individuals, programs, and experiences influenced the decision of CCS alumni to pursue a college education. Reid found that participants’ families were the single most important influence in their decisions to attend college. Participants discussed their parents wanting a better life for them, and felt that postsecondary education was necessary in attaining one (Reid, 2007). Participants’ parents did not know college application processes, but encouraged the participants to ask questions at school. Their parents also contacted schools themselves to ask questions, and attended workshops put on by both school staff and I Know I Can. Several of Reid’s (2007) participants identified the positive impact of supportive school teachers and staff, as well as I Know I Can staff, on their transitions to college. Today, parents – particularly Black parents – continue to be proactive, and to encourage their children to work towards accessing college.

By contrast, low-income White families in Columbus and with ties to Ohio’s Appalachian region are less encouraging of college attendance than Black families in Columbus (I Know I Can, personal communication, February 28, 2018). Factors that contribute to apprehensive views of college include having negative experiences with education systems in the past, and previously having to leave college during or after the first year because of personal and familial hardships. Woodrum’s (2004) study suggests that Appalachian families often feel that education systems teach their children to leave their families. These families fear that their children will never return to their communities once they have attended college.

Black CCS students have expressed wanting to attend college to access more job options and a higher quality of life than those of peers who did not attend college (Reid, 2007). However, all CCS students also recognize that the poverty in which they live limits their options for upward mobility by the time they reach middle school. Students are particularly vulnerable to dropout during the transition between middle and high school, as they become more discouraged by limited future prospects (I Know I Can, personal communication, February 28, 2018).

Last, many CCS students speak English as a second language, and collectively speak more than 100 languages (I Know I Can, personal communication, February 28, 2018), which suggests that professionals should be cognizant of non-American cultural representation and needs when developing college access programs and policies. Organizations like I Know I Can translate program materials to accommodate families whose first language is not English, but these families’ needs extend beyond access to literature in their preferred language.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As the largest school district in the state of Ohio, Columbus City Schools faces challenges in providing college access to its students that require attention at the policy and structural levels. Significant barriers for low-income CCS students include having limited access to and experience with education systems, not having the access or expectation to complete a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, and having limited knowledge in the financial aid process. One non-profit organization is working tirelessly with CCS to prepare its students for college, supporting both them and school staff on a daily basis in order to create a college pathway that begins in middle school. However, one non-profit should not have to compensate for infrastructural shortcomings.

Furthermore: creating partnerships with organizations is one step, but not a complete response, toward increasing the number and diversity of students that transition into college from Franklin County. Communities like those in the CCS District face interlocking barriers when working to create access for their students. Partnerships will not remove these barriers, but shifts in education policy and practice will begin to do so. Districts must be reflective and intentional in creating infrastructure that will support the success of their students. School completion infrastructure that also supports college-going must: (a) design curriculum that fulfills application requirements for selective institutions, (b) create early access to financial literacy that accommodates an array of languages, reading levels, and cultural understandings, (c) respond to varying perceptions that student subpopulations and their communities have of college, (d) understand and respond to students’ motivations and discouragements regarding college-going, and (e) accommodate the cultural traditions and needs of subpopulations that are underrepresented minorities in America’s education systems.


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