NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.
In some ways, David Boone looked like many of his Harvard classmates. He had top grades in high school, a packed list of extracurriculars, and internships at places like General Electric. Less typical was the fact that he is black and had been homeless while attending MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland.
His story,, illuminates what schools can do to alter the course of young people’s lives—and the fundamental changes that systems must make to support the millions of young people facing challenges similar to David’s.
I came to know David while he was in high school, and I was Chief of Staff for Cleveland public schools. Thanks to his magnetic personality and endless optimism about his future, his energy and aspirations were infectious. He worked hard to be the first in his family to go to college. Having watched him grow since ninth grade, I was not surprised when he was admitted to Harvard.
Once there, David did well in his classes, started a robotics club, and found a group of friends. Yet he struggled with how to get help from college professors who—unlike high school teachers—needed to be tracked down. He also worried that he would be identified as the “affirmative action kid.” Despite these challenges, David did what so many do not: He graduated.
Too many young people, especially students of color and low-income students, start college but do not finish. The number of wealthy students who earn a four-year degree has increased from 46 percent for children born in the 1970s to 60 percent for those born in the 1980s. For their low-income counterparts over the same time period,.
This gap in completion is problematic for many reasons, including degrees’ huge economic benefits: Those who earn a bachelor’s makethan those without a degree.
Thankfully, however, more low-income students are going to college than ever before, in large part because school systems like Cleveland have done important technical work to ensure students stay on track in high school and provide necessary interventions. Under my leadership in Cleveland schools, we focused on tying together program design aligned to careers and college pathways, implementation of student supports and services, data analysis, and community partnerships to knock down barriers students were facing.
But districts can and must do more. And they can start by—an especially urgent question for low-income students and students of color. It’s not enough to get into college. College readiness needs to include having the skills and supports necessary to persevere, thrive, and graduate.
David and I both learned the difference. He was academically prepared for college, as I was, but neither of us felt we belonged. My high school counselor proactively helped some students think about college, yet I was not one of them. I navigated the whole process alone and was shocked by how unfamiliar everything was when I matriculated. Luckily, I had mentors who could connect the dots of what I was experiencing to how it would shape me. They gave me a sense of belonging so that college eventually became a place where I thrived.
To ensure that the many highly-capable, low-income students, students of color, and students like me and David earn a degree in a manner that maximizes the college experience and students’ full potential, we need to radically redefine college preparedness.
We must refocus the critically important role of the high school guidance counselor to be one that works to lead every child to college or career, not one consumed by transactional tasks that currently mire the role. That starts with a smaller student-to-counselor ratio so that counselors get to know, mentor, and support students. It’s also critical that districts recruit candidates who are representative of the children they serve and train them on the latest research on how best to support students of color and low-income students on their path to college graduation. Counselors must begin conversations about college early and create a set of organized experiences to prepare students for how they’re likely to feel walking onto a campus, especially when they are part of an underrepresented group. And the relationship continues long after getting into college by staying connected to students in their postsecondary and professional careers.
Finding the “right” college is more complex than selecting a school, choosing a course of study, and securing financial resources. We must guide students to places with substantial academic and non-academic assistance; show them that they’re capable of building network that are academically and personally supportive; and ensure that all see themselves as capable of being successful.
For those that choose the pathway to college, we need to send a clear message to every student: College is your home, and you belong there.
Christine Fowler-Mack is the Chief Portfolio Officer at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and a Future Chief with Chiefs for Change.