The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the first installment, Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet present their research into the college application and transition process in New York City Schools. Bloom and Chajet both taught in small city high schools that mostly serve low-income students of color before enrolling in CUNY Graduate Center’s urban education program. They now co-direct an organization, College Access: Research & Action, to ease the college transition for city students.

Leave questions for Bloom and Chajet about their research in the comments section.

What questions guided your study?  

Bloom: How does social class impact students’ choices about post-secondary education and their transition to college?

Chajet: What happens to students when they move from a small urban public school, with a college-for-all mission, to college, and how does this illuminate the power and the limits of small school reform and the policies and practices of higher education?

How did you conduct your research?

Bloom: I used ethnographic research to study students at three small New York City high schools over the course of a year. The elements of my research were: Weekly observations of college prep or “advisory” classes; focus groups and individual interviews with a small target group of students; interviews with parents, college counselors, teachers, and the school principals; two surveys administered to a large cohort of seniors at each school.

Chajet: My study had two parts: 1) an ethnographic school based study that included participant observation, interviews with staff members and students, and document collection at one academically-unscreened small school; 2) a graduate follow-up study for which I followed a group of 6 students for three and a half-years as they transitioned into and through college – including interviewing them and their families, visiting them at their colleges, collecting their of syllabi and assignments, emailing and calling them. I also did interviews, focus groups and surveys with approximately 100 other graduates.

What were your major discoveries?

Bloom: Research indicates that the post-secondary outcomes of this transition for low-income students are often negative. Educational sociologists and other scholars have debated whether these outcomes are due to ‘contradictory attitudes towards education’ exhibited by low-income students.

My findings, however, point to a different explanation. With few exceptions, the seniors that I followed, all of whom were qualified to attend college (as demonstrated by their acceptance to four-year colleges), initially declared their intent to go to college. Their journey towards that goal, however, varied based on their backgrounds and financial resources. Poor and working class students face significant economic, social and psychological risks that middle and upper class students do not.

First, while many people are aware of the skyrocketing costs of college over the past 30 years, fewer are aware that the percentage of federal financial aid available as grants has dropped precipitously, while the percentage represented by loans has grown proportionally. For low-income students and families, taking out significant educational debt poses far larger risks than it does for middle and upper income families.

Second, these students and their families enter the college application process with far less familiarity with the landscape of higher education and the requirements for matriculation, which makes the application process far more difficult.

Finally, as the first in their families to go on to post-secondary education, students are often intimidated by college campuses, and the make-up of their faculty and students; and they carry a heavy weight of family expectations and fears with them as they head off to a new and unknown world. The transition to college campuses is often much more fraught for these students than for those from middle and upper income families, where college is a known quantity.

Thus, rather than students’ attitudes being contradictory, they are reacting to real barriers to college that they see and experience in their lives – even if those barriers may be invisible to middle class educators, policymakers and researchers.

Chajet: My study showed that when a small school redefines structures, practice, and relationships, it produces graduates who outperform national averages in rates of college attendance and persistence and emerge with an increased desire to continue their learning. At the same time, graduates’ journeys collectively demonstrate the complexity of implementing a college-for-all mission given the reality of the obstacles low-income students of color face in college.

*National numbers come from 2003 US Census data compiled in “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003” (US Census Bureau, 2004) and New York City numbers come from 2000 US Census data compiled in Census 2000 Summary File (US Census Bureau, 2000).

Bridges’ (pseudonym for school studied) persistence rates were higher because it structured its school towards its college-for-all mission: classes were not tracked; all students had access to college guidance and were helped to apply to college; students and teachers engaged in trusting relationships; academic courses were designed for rigor and engagement; high-stakes standardized tests did not dictate standards; and teachers, treated as professionals and given the power to shape practice.

At the same time the numbers were not what small schools educators’ hoped for; the obstacles were more varied and constant than many ever imagined. Graduates’ journeys revealed a complex story – one that captured students’ intense desire to learn and how trying college can be for low-income students of color. Critiques of college teaching, stories of money and family-related stress, and indications of alienation from campus-communities were echoed throughout many interviews and surveys were.

My findings spoke to practices in both small high schools and colleges. The data illustrated that small schools – even high performing ones – need to do more around college-readiness; specifically, they need to do more to develop students’ understanding of the landscape and costs of higher education and to support students through the college search, financial aid, and choice process. They also need to increase family involvement and provide professional development around college-readiness to all staff. At the same time, the post-secondary experiences of Bridges graduates reinforce many of the documented problems within higher education for low-income students of color: inadequate financial aid; the challenge of living between two (or among many) cultures; alienation from campus communities; a lack of tacit knowledge needed to navigate the system; and un-engaging classroom practice.

While the media and policy makers often attribute low persistence rates in college to high school under-preparation, there is a need for more accountability in higher education to support, engage, and integrate low-income students of color into college.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Bloom & Chajet: If the New York City Department of Education is going to hold schools accountable for their college-going outcomes (as it is now doing on school report cards), it needs to dedicate sufficient resources to making this possible. This means vastly increasing the resources for hiring and training college counselors in schools, providing resources to help students visit college campuses and take part in programs on these campuses, as well as training teachers and providing curriculum to high schools to do work with students about college-going, beginning in middle school.

Have you done any follow-up work? 

Bloom & Chajet: Since completing our research, we have gone back into schools (through a grant from the Higher Education Services Corporation, administered by the Institute for Student Achievement) and worked to develop these kinds of resources to train teachers and implement curriculum with students. This year, with our colleague Lisa Cowan, we started an organization — College Access: Research & Action (CARA) — to help schools, community-based organizations, and the larger policy arena put into practice what we found through our research.

Are there further questions you are exploring? 

Bloom & Chajet: A “college-going culture” is often seen as the ideal. However, many schools struggle to operationalize this: Beyond wearing college sweatshirts or naming advisory classrooms after colleges, how can schools create a “culture” that encourages ALL students towards informed choices around post-secondary education?