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Creating a College-Going Culture for English Language Learners

Some English language learners may not know what to expect from the college application process. Others don't start thinking about college until their junior or senior year. One way to ensure that students are prepared to apply for college is to create a college-going culture in your school and across your district.

If Latino students don't receive information about higher education opportunities, we can't be surprised if they don't pursue the options that we know are out there…During my senior year, even though I had been accepted to many campuses of the University of California, and I ran a lot of the school clubs, I was told that I should start college close to home, and that I should try other options. Fortunately, I didn't heed that advice, and I had a successful undergraduate career at Berkeley before going on to graduate work and my Ph.D.

— Dr. Frances Contreras

ELLs and college

For some English language learners, the idea of going to college may be something very new, a goal they have not been sure if they should and could pursue. Some English language learners may not know what to expect from the college application process. Others don't start thinking about college until their junior or senior year. While college may not be the right step for every student, there are many students who, given the chance, would be successful in college if they had the opportunity to attend.

Unfortunately, many bright and motivated students never get the chance to apply, much less attend, for reasons ranging from lack of encouragement and information to misperceptions about the application process and financial aid.

One way to help get students on the college track is by creating a college-going culture in your school and across your district. It is a daunting process, and while some steps can only be implemented with the cooperation of the school district, administrators, and other teachers, some steps can be implemented by individual teachers and counselors.

Remember when considering these steps to keep in mind your target student population. How many students are the first in their family to go to college? How many students have parents who don't speak English? Keeping your pulse on your students and their families will help you provide the most important information in the most effective format, and will improve your chances of engaging everyone involved.

Getting started

To get started, try the following ideas:

  • Start early

    Pre-schools, elementary schools, and middle schools around the country are talking to their kids about college. The earlier you start to talk about higher education with students, the more time you give them to get prepared, and the more time you give them to absorb that college can indeed be a possibility for them — especially for those students who may not get that message from anyplace else.

    It's also important to remember that families of ELLs, such as families of migrant students, may move quite a bit, and may not stay in the same school or district. Districts need to take advantage of the opportunities they have to speak with families when those opportunities are available, because many younger students may no longer be in the same district by the time they are ready to think about college.

  • Get parents involved as soon as possible

    Talking about college with parents from the time their children are young gives parents a chance to plan ahead and to save some money, as well as a compelling reason to support their children's academic success throughout their education. It will also avoid the pressure of having to figure everything out at the last minute as their children are finishing high school.

    It's important that parents have the information they need to support their children through this process, especially if they are new to this country or don't speak English. Most, if not all high schools, have programs for parents explaining many aspects of the college application process and financial aid. ESL teachers can collaborate with guidance counselors by getting translators for these presentations and translating handouts. For parents who can't attend, materials can be mailed home. Ask parent liaisons or coordinators for guidance so that they can help you determine the most effective ways to communicate with your students' parents.

    For more ideas on how to bring parents into this process, see Building college-going for parents and families from the University of California at Berkeley's College Tools website.

  • Create a resource center for students and parents

    Make sure that students and parents have access to the information they need, ideally in their native language. Invite students and parents in for workshops and advising sessions in which they can ask questions and talk with other families who are going through the same steps. Make sure information is available about the different kinds of admissions processes, such as early admissions and early decision, and the benefits or rules for each.

  • Tour local campuses in your community

    A visit to the college campus can tell the students a lot about what their experience might be like. This is very important because students may not know what to ask about or look for until they are enrolled in a college. Meeting with the college admissions counselor will give them better information about what courses will best meet their needs and what kinds of support are available on campus. ELLs may not know how to set up this appointment, may underestimate the need to visit, or may need help with transportation.

    Colleges will offer several opportunities on campus: open houses, tours, interviews, informational sessions. College representatives will also come visit high schools. Find out the scheduled visits and make an appointment with your guidance counselor.

  • Develop relationships with colleges that will be a good fit for your students

    Christine Rowland writes, "As the years passed, I would make a note of which colleges were receptive to non-native speakers, and I also kept track — through old students — which ones took care of them. We found there were a few schools that were really unsuitable: they got them involved too much socially or the students felt too different, or there wasn't enough support for them.

    After a while, you develop relationships with colleges, and we found some very strong colleges that would accept ELLs. They also helped me to tell students what they needed to do to have the transcripts they needed, like maybe a student would need to take a summer school class." One way to get this relationship started is by hosting an annual college fair at your school, and preparing your students for the fair beforehand.

  • Help your students establish goals

    Getting your students to set goals will also get them thinking about what is needed to achieve those goals. Have students research careers, salaries, and educational programs so that they have realistic ideas about what to expect. Talk about the value of education over the long-term so that students get a sense of the relationship between level of education attained and potential salary growth during their lifetime.

  • Create a bulletin board with photos of students at your school who have gone onto college, as well as the name of the college and/or program they are attending

    Posting information about other students who are successful will not only allow students to see where their friends have gone to school, but will motivate them to achieve what their peers have accomplished. This sends the message to students, parents, and school staff that the school values student growth and success.

  • Keep in touch with students who have graduated

    Have them come back to the school to talk about their experiences, what worked or what didn't work, and what they would recommend to their peers. These students can also be a tremendous resource in terms of programs and financial aid opportunities to recommend. They can do presentations on the application process, different programs of study, and share specific examples from their experiences. Some can provide information in the languages that other students speak.

  • Encourage and support your students while talking honestly with them about the college application process

    It's important for students to know the challenges they are facing so that they are prepared to meet them. College may not be an option for some students for a number of reasons, and you can play an important role in helping those students decide what steps they will take after high school by talking with them about their goals and the obstacles they face.

    Students may face other challenges too — for example, many students without legal documentation have graduated from college in this country but can't work because they don't have the legal right to work in the U.S. It's important when working with ELLs to make sure they are aware of their options and to find the people best qualified to support them.

  • Discuss these initiatives with colleagues throughout your district

    By making a college-going culture part of all of the schools in your district, students will get a unified message that college is indeed within their grasp and that their schools believe in them. It also will allow school officials and educators to think about what kinds of opportunities best fit their own student body, families, and local community.

Colorín Colorado (2008)

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