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What can motivate low-income high school kids to apply to college?

March 18, 2016 at 8:16 PM EDT
This month, many prospective college students are anticipating an admissions decision from their dream school. Keith Frome, author of “How’s My Kid Doing?” has worked with high school students across the country and believes he has found the key to encouraging them to consider college: peer pressure. Frome offers his unique take on the college application process.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a “NewsHour” Essay.

This month, many high school seniors have either just learned, or are anxiously waiting to hear, what colleges they might have gotten into.

Education advocate Keith Frome has worked with students across the country, and believes the key to getting more kids to apply to college is peer pressure.

KEITH FROME, Author, “How’s My Kid Doing?”: One summer weekend, I taught a small group of students from a low-income community how to write their personal statements for their college applications.

Each student would be the first in their family to apply to college, and their ability to tell their stories was going to be critical to their success.

During the three-day retreat, we used a variety of writing techniques to produce memorable, compelling and utterly authentic essays that I knew would stick in the minds of college admission officers.

Returning home, I felt quite satisfied, perhaps a little smugly so, with a job well done, and I proudly shared the compositions with my friends and family.

One of the students, though, who wrote about his attempts to extricate himself from a neighborhood gang, didn’t share my sense of completion. Though he had completed his college applications, his work was just beginning. He was on a mission.

When he returned to school, he asked his principal to gather the entire senior class in the auditorium. He proceeded to read his personal statement to them and said that, if he could write this well, everyone else could do the same.

He then led every senior, step by step, through the composition of their personal statements using the techniques he had learned in our weekend together.

They started with a free-write. They read these aloud. They listened to each other, noting moments of beauty and probing for more details and explanations.

The principal called me later that week, astonished at what he had witnessed. My colleagues and I began to hear similar stories from other schools around the country. We began to understand that the most influential person to a 17-year-old is another 17-year-old.

And it struck us that this might be a key to solving a big problem. Every year, there are 1.1 million low-income eighth graders in America’s schools; 95 percent say they want to go to college, but only 9 percent of them will graduate by the time they are 24. In 1970, that figure was 6 percent. We have clearly not made much progress.

Many think that the solution is to bring complex and expensive interventions into schools. I say the students themselves, with some training and coaching, can be organized into teams to work on behalf of the rest of their classmates.

STUDENT: The only thing about your personal essay is, like, it’s really good. So, I would say type it up just as it is, right?

KEITH FROME: There are hundreds of urban or rural high schools around the country where I am privileged to watch students leading their classmates to college.

I have seen students lock their fellow seniors in a gym until they have completed their college applications. When college representatives refused to come to a high school, I saw a group of students themselves represent the colleges for the rest of the school in the cafeteria.

In rural Florida, I watched a team of juniors and seniors lead an assembly for 1,500 students like it was a revival meeting, exhorting the entire school to commit to going to college. Peer leadership is a powerful force to behold, and it gets measurable results.

In high schools, where peer leader teams are deployed, we have seen students get more than 70 percent of their classmates to apply to college, resulting in increases of 20 percent or more in actual college enrollment rates.

We are entering an era in education reform that is calling for more collaboration among schools, unions and businesses, so that all students succeed. That sounds good, but we will only witness more lackluster results unless we understand that students are partners, too, who can help their peers achieve.

I’m reminded of a high school senior named Cornelius Williams, who had no intention of going to college. He had no adult role models who ever attended college and he didn’t see the value in it. One day, he met Ashley Daniels who had just been trained to be a peer leader. She nurtured and nagged Cornelius through the entire application process.

Not only did he get into college. After he graduated, he volunteered with College Summit, paying Ashley’s coaching forward to a new generation of students.

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