Perceptions and realities of access to college
By Lisa M. Cania M’82
When I was in high school in the early 1970s, we had “tracking”– the A group, the B group, the C group. The A group was college-bound, and the world was at our feet. The B group might attend college, and while their choices might be more limited, they could at least consider options. The C group – well, in our very narrow and regrettable worldview, the C’s went to work in the factories.
Access to college was dependent only on how hard you worked in high school. Our parents grew up in the Great Depression and a college education for their children was the greatest investment they could make, the most reliable insurance they could offer for a good, secure and meaningful life.
Times have changed. Access to college – simply getting in – is perceived to be a major obstacle in the minds of many American families, according to survey research conducted in spring 2008 by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Yet college attendance rates are at an all-time high. Can a high school student who wants to attend college find a place to study for the next two to four years? Is college out of reach for some in our society?
“With more than 3,500 colleges in the United States, I can say confidently that there is a college for everyone who wants to earn a degree. However, there is absolutely no entitlement to attend the one specific college that a student chooses as the number one option,” says Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Terry Cowdrey. “A college degree is possible for everyone. What is not possible is a guarantee of enrollment in, or access to, certain colleges. I believe there is a disproportionate level of access for those who come from the ‘have’ families compared with those who come from the ‘have not’ families.”
(An article about access and affordability would require many pages, complicated as the affordability topic is. President Daniel F. Sullivan wrote a lengthy editorial that was published in the April 19, 2007, edition of Inside Higher Education and in the April 2008 edition of St. Lawrence’s Momentum newsletter; it can be read by visiting http://insidehighered.com/views/2007/04/19/sullivan. Our focus with this article is on the concept of “simply getting in” to college.)
The college search process today for all but the wealthiest does require self-examination, responsibility, research and open-mindedness, says Cowdrey. She believes that making the most of high school is important for intrinsic benefit, and allows a student to have options for college.
“We like to see evidence of authentic discovery in the college search process,” says Cowdrey. “It’s important for students to articulate why each school on their list of possibilities is a good match for their aspirations and talents, and to do so, students need to have done their homework about the colleges.”
Note that Cowdrey stresses that students need to have done their homework. In that distant past that I remember, we, the applicants, did all the work and the parents, if they were involved at all, drove us around and waited in the parking lots, reading newspapers while we toured and interviewed. Today, it’s often the parent who is making inquiries, setting up schedules, even writing the application. The message, Cowdrey says, that students hear from such parents is, “The college search is so complicated and difficult that you’re not competent to manage this important stage of your life.”
Instead, students should hear that they have all the skill they need to do the work of identifying college options, and that while some of their options ultimately may not offer them a place in a specific first-year class, if they assess their goals and plumb the resources available to them, they’ll find an academic home.
And the colleges’ role? Cowdrey manages the St. Lawrence admissions office to ensure, as much as any college and more than most, that each student’s individual questions are answered, so that the student can make an informed decision about applying and, if offered a place in a new class, enrolling.
“We neither take the position that we are the right place for everyone, nor communicate to students the ‘you’d be lucky to be accepted here,’” she says. With St. Lawrence’s record numbers of applications (5,418 in 2007-2008, with a 34% acceptance rate), doubling demand in the past decade, Cowdrey and her staff will maintain such customized responsiveness even as the numbers of interested students grow.
The anxiety about college access comes from many sources, and the media, sensing tension, seek evidence of such anxiety. A recent inquiry on one of Cowdrey’s listserves is illustrative: “A reporter asked for a lead on a student who might have applied to 20 colleges and was rejected by all of them,” she recalls. “That query is irresponsible. Some colleges have a very low acceptance rate, of course, but the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges is 70%. There is a place in college for everyone.”
Lisa Cania, St. Lawrence’s associate vice president for University relations, went to Wells College after being in the A Group at Rome (N.Y.) Free Academy.