The Success Factor
Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the Mid-Atlantic Director of College Access at Let's Get Ready, an education nonprofit that provides low-income high school students with free SAT preparation, admissions counseling and other support services needed to gain admission to and graduate from college. Shaquinah served as the founding College Counselor at a charter school in the Bronx where she designed and implemented a 9-12 college counseling program. Prior to that, Shaquinah was an Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow where she partnered with an education organization to design a project to help increase college matriculation for disconnected learners. She also worked for two years as a college advisor with the MGI/Gear Up program at an Early College high school.
Shaquinah received her BA from Cornell University with a major in Sociology and Inequality Studies and her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College. As a first-generation college graduate, Shaquinah has a passion for creating sustainable action to address issues of opportunity and access for students.
When I was working as a college counseling intern at a high school in the Bronx, I was assigned a caseload of students considered “at-risk” for various reasons. Some of them were students not on track to graduate in four years. But the bulk was made up of students who were pretty disengaged in the college process (even before it officially started).
All of the students in the junior class were required to sit down with the college counselor to talk about their postsecondary options. Before that happened, however, they needed to fill out a survey online with some basic questions to help with their college search. One of my students, “David”, refused to comply. I reminded him in hallway. I sent emails. I told his friends to tell him. I pretty much did everything short of stalking him (does waiting outside of his gym class count?) to get him to fill out this survey. He started calling me the “Naviance lady” and went out of his way to avoid me. It was frustrating and more than a little bit humbling. But after a lot of reminders - and some grumbling on his part – he finally completed the survey and met with the counselor.
The Wake-Up Call
After his meeting, he told me that he was interested in SUNY Binghamton but the counselor told him he didn’t have the grades. And that’s a tough conversation to have with any student, but can feel especially precarious when you’re talking with a student who doesn’t really want to talk with you to begin with. So I was worried the news would send him fleeing from the College Office forever, but it actually had the opposite effect.
David started taking school more seriously. He visited Binghamton several times and met with admissions officers. He reached out to alumni from our school to learn more about their experience. He worked with his English teacher on his personal essay. He went from being the student I could never find, to claiming his own corner in the College Office. And when he was accepted off of Binghamton’s waitlist, I am pretty sure no one cheered louder than I did. As excited as I was for him, I was also a bit worried that he wasn’t quite ready for the rigors of college. He managed to turn it around his last year in high school, but would he keep that momentum going once he got on campus?
When As plus Bs equals Ds
A few years later, I was working at a different high school as the founding college counselor. As Jeff wrote last week, working with the first graduating class of a high school is a huge undertaking. Prior to my coming on board, the students’ exposure to college was essentially limited to conversations with their teachers (many of whom attended some pretty elite colleges). The mood in the school around college was positive and upbeat – with the overwhelming message that students could attend any college they wanted. And they definitely wanted the best. I had one student who refused to consider any college that wasn’t Stanford. And two twin brothers who were convinced Coach K was coming at any moment to recruit them for Duke.
One of my students, “Amanda”, was considered the shining star of her class. She had a great GPA, was super involved in the community, and was honestly a genuinely nice student. Unlike my experience with David, I never had to coerce her to come to my office. She was constantly there asking questions and working on her applications. Amanda ended up enrolling at a pretty selective liberal arts college. The entire school celebrated her success. She was featured in several videos and heralded as an example of a student who was destined to do great things. But four months after starting college, Amanda was placed on academic probation.
When she and I later spoke about it, she talked about the pressure she felt to select the type of school that was “expected” of her. When she got there, she realized that things didn’t come as easy to her as they did in high school and she wasn’t prepared to struggle. The idea of asking for help went against the persona she cultivated in high school. So when she found herself in a room of other high achieving students, she didn’t know how to navigate a world where she wasn’t automatically the best. So she stopped trying.
The College Readiness Continuum
The hard truth is that doing well in high school does not automatically guarantee a student will do well in college. And vice versa. David ended up not only graduating from Binghamton, but also enrolling in a Masters program at NYU. And Amanda eventually transferred to a community college after being de-matriculated from her private university.
On paper, Amanda wasn’t someone our school considered “at risk” so she wasn’t targeted for interventions like summer bridge programs and transition workshops. Our school was trying to focus our energy on students like David – students who got into college, but weren’t necessarily on track to get out in four years. As more and more of the work in college access shifts towards supporting students to and through college, it is increasingly challenging to figure out which students need the most support.
As we work with bigger cohorts of students (with decreasing resources) how do we figure out the best places to focus on our attention? And what do you do when the kids you thought would have no issues still struggle in college?