by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard on April 10,2012
At a recent fundraiser for a community-based college access program, the sense of opportunity was palpable. Speaking about their experiences, students and parents made clear the incredible impact the program had had on their lives, and program leaders described impressive plans for expanding students’ reach. Sitting in that room, we could easily have felt as though we were embarking on a new day—one in which all young people would have the resources and supports to pursue postsecondary education. However, statistics tell another story: many low-income, ethnic minority, and first-generation college-bound youth are significantly less likely than their peers to enter and graduate from college. Even with strong programs in place, many young people aren’t availing themselves of support or are dropping out of the pipeline. What’s missing?
We believe that one of the missing links is attention to adolescent development. Many college readiness efforts provide valuable information and support, but fail to take into account identity, motivation, peer relationships, and other developmental processes that are central to adolescents’ lives. These processes influence all stages of the college-going process, including whether young people sign up for the programs mentioned above. Many young people dream early of going to college, but come to believe that college isn’t possible for people like them, so they don’t seek out support. Others don’t have the self-regulatory skills to engage in the behaviors that are necessary to get to and through college, so we write them off as being unfocused or uncommitted. Even more troubling is the fact that many students prematurely decide that college is not for them before they have even had the chance to explore their options.
Applying a developmental perspective can help us see each young person as an individual and understand the support that he or she needs to prepare for a productive future. It can help us to engage young people in reflective conversations, identity exploration, goal-setting and planning exercises, and a host of other strategies that can put them on a path to future success—and our communities on a path toward greater educational equity.
For example, most of us know that adolescents are constantly experimenting and grappling with their identities. But we may not see how this connects to why young people develop college-going identities— or why they don’t. Take for instance the growing trend to have schools adopt a “College Day” in which faculty and staff wear college sweatshirts and post college banners, with the goal of inspiring students to apply to college. For young people who don’t identify with college, or who think they’re not college material, this probably does very little to promote aspirations. But if it is coupled with other strategies that help these students connect their interests and skills with going to college, it could provide helpful reinforcement and validation. One way we have seen schools do this is by devoting time in advisories to exploring identity issues and how they can inform decisions about the future.
Similarly, a lack of understanding about motivational processes can undermine well-intentioned efforts to build college aspirations. Research from developmental psychology demonstrates that people are more likely to reach their long-term goals when their motivations include intrinsic, personal reasons. But when it comes to college, many of our conversations with young people focus solely on extrinsic rewards, like the fact that they can make more money with a college degree. The problem with focusing solely on these benefits is that they can feel distant or abstract, and they may not be enough to make young people stick with their initial goals—particularly when they encounter challenges in higher education. Schools can and should promote a more balanced set of reasons for going to college, which can include extrinsic reasons but should also include intrinsic reasons (such as learning more about one’s passions or making contributions to one’s community).
Applying a developmental perspective represents a paradigm shift in current efforts to increase young people’s ability to access and succeed in college. If we lay a foundation of developmental supports for the growing array of academic, information, and financial supports, there is no limit to the post-secondary paths our young people can pursue or to the things they can achieve during and well beyond college.
This post is adapted from Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success (Harvard Education Press, 2012) by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard