Creating a college culture

Imagine this: You’re a 16-year-old high school student scraping by with a C average. Your parents never went to college, and it’s the last thing on the minds of the kids you spend most of your time with. But then you decide to pursue a degree – and figure out how to raise your GPA, find financial aid and get accepted to the institution that’s just right for you.

If you’re a low-income student from rural America, sadly, you need to beat the odds to realize that dream. Only 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from rural areas enroll in higher education, and nationally only 11 percent of students from the families in the bottom economic quartile graduate from four-year colleges. As the head of an organization that has worked with more than 40,000 rural students, I recognize that low achievement and high college costs are part of the problem. But there’s another challenge that gets far less attention: Too many students from rural communities never develop the aspiration to go to college.

Case in point: Five years ago, John Pollock of Willsboro was a mediocre student who hadn’t even considered higher education. When a teacher encouraged him to buckle down academically and think about college, he faced ridicule from peers who told him it was a waste of time. Fortunately a mentor convinced him to press on, with daily urgings to study, weekly reminders to sign up for the ACT and SAT, and extensive hands-on help in finding financial aid.

Today John is a college junior with a 3.62 GPA. He’s proud of what he has accomplished but asserts, “There’s no way I could have done this without lots of help from other people. My mentor pushed and pushed me to do better – to stop settling for average and raise my own standards.”

John was lucky. He received guidance that’s accepted as a given among students in affluent communities – but with an interesting twist. Over the course of several months he learned about his potential to influence others. He did this through service activities to improve his school and community, through participation at a national conference to foster his own leadership potential, and with constant encouragement to share his aspirations with other students in the Willsboro community.

These activities were integral to his involvement in College for Every Student. All of the students we mentor are expected to mentor others. All get hands-on help to improve their grades and apply for college. And all have opportunities to develop the discipline and leadership skills that help them succeed once they get there.

Thanks to thousands of volunteers and partnerships with 200 pre-K-to-12 schools and 210 colleges, we work with 20,000 students in 24 states. But some of our most important activities will now take place in Essex, a town of 600 people in upstate New York. Through our CFES Center – space to conduct trainings and workshops – in Essex, we expect to involve, virtually and in-person, thousands of students, families and K-16 educators in experiences that bridge gaps in aspirations and achievement for low-income students nationwide. In fact, our new space will allow CFES to double the number of students we serve by 2020.

While the futures of our students will continue to be the top priority, we intend to have an echo effect in the greater Adirondack region. Our center will bring 15 jobs to the area, and our workshops will bring hundreds of young people, educators and community leaders to the town of Essex each year. With support from our staff, we will help parents, families and community leaders to embrace their role in promoting the value of college. We want younger children to follow in the footsteps of their older, college-bound siblings. And we want the residents of Essex and neighboring communities to become part of a college-going culture throughout the region.

Think I’m dreaming? Then talk to John Pollock. A few months into his own college journey, he reached back to two longtime friends who had dropped out of college and convinced them to give it another try. His “If I can do it, you can too” attitude paid big dividends. Today they room together at SUNY Canton. They all have GPAs above 3.6. They’re all on track to graduate and get good jobs. And together they offer a great example of what can happen when aspirations are instilled and fulfilled.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College for Every Student, based in Essex.