December 1, 1999
The Union City Board of Education requested Center for Children and Technology to investigate how Union City's young people plan for their lives after high school. The Board was interested in identifying what roles the school district's personnel play in helping students plan for the future, specifically toward attaining a college education, in order to improve the services its schools provide.
In a poor community with recent immigrants like Union City, young people's needs regarding college differ from those students in middle class neighborhoods exhibit. Many families lack knowledge of, and experience within, the university system in the U.S., limiting their awareness of what going to college would entail, much less how to negotiate key elements of a college-bound strategy. Many also lack the economic resources that make college an option for their children. These factors place a greater burden upon Union City's two high schools, Emerson and Union Hill, to help students develop strategies for their post graduation pathways.
In June 1999, CCT staff interviewed fifty-nine Union City high school graduating seniors about their next steps, future plans and the support they receive at school. Chosen to represent a cross-section of students pursuing different post-graduation paths, the students ranged in academic standing from honors students to students struggling to pass standardized exams. CCT consciously oversampled students in two special programs run by its high schools, Road to College and Cooperative Business Education, to allow us to look deeply into some of their strategies. Road to College (RTC) is an afterschool program that helps honors students get into college. Cooperative Business Education (CBE) is a school-day work-study program designed to allow students to earn a salary and school credit. We conducted the interviews during the last week of the school year. Each high school provided a list of more than 70 students divided across categories of honors, general, SRA, college-bound and work-bound. Students were pulled from class for the interview. With absentees and class duties, not all students were available when called, skewing the distribution of the sample toward honors students and girls.
Students' plan for the future fell into two broad categories: college-bound and workplace-bound.
For the college group, we identified five elements of a solid, college-bound strategy:
- Exposure to and planning for college - (students learned through RTC, teachers or guidance counselors) knowledge about the benefits of college and expectations of college life help young people make positive decisions about college.
- SAT preparation - students knew about the test, gained access to preparation support and materials and had sophisticated test-taking strategies.
- School selection - students understood factors involved in selecting a university such as financial aid, program strength, university reputation, location, quality of life, proximity, costs and work opportunities.
- Application process - students understood the elements involved in the college application process from essays and recommendations to testing, application and waiver deadlines.
- Financial aid process - students received assistance in navigating the complex, decentralized world of financial aid.
- Academic tracks shaped the kinds of supports that students accessed and received.
- Honors students were comfortable going to teachers and guidance counselors alike.
- SRA (Student Review Assessment) students rarely sought support from guidance counselors; they were much more likely to seek help from teachers.
- Pronounced differences existed between the college-bound strategies employed by Road to College students and non-Road to College students.
For the students preparing to go directly into the work force, we discussed their career goals, what they thought those jobs would be like, and how to get from high school to their chosen profession. We also asked where they hoped to be five years into the future. While college-bound students had clear-cut steps to follow, work-bound students faced more open-ended choices and less evident issues. Student responses indicated how difficult it is for young people to navigate the complexity of unknown possibilities and paths, when their own work experience is limited.
When we examined the role school personnel and other adults played in the development of these students' strategies, we found:
The success of the Road to College program is apparent. This program should continue to invest in supporting the honors students in getting into many top-level colleges and universities. With resources, the Road to College program should consider expanding to include non-honors students. This group could benefit from effective college-bound strategies and needs the support of knowledgeable adults. The district should work on establishing a comprehensive school-to-work program. CBE provides a strong foundation. With resources this could expand to a wider student base. Union City should seek Federal funding to support and expand its initiatives, and the district is well positioned to do so.