New research suggests high schools can improve student success by facilitating peer and adult social support to help students overcome hurdles associated with college admission.
The Florida State study focused on underrepresented high school students and found that traditional programming often does not help a student gain self-esteem or the self-confidence that they are college eligible.
Dr. Lara Perez-Felkner, an assistant professor of higher education and sociology and a senior research associate at Florida State’s Center for Postsecondary Success (CPS), published the study in the journal Teachers’ College Record.
The three-year study analyzed the variation in students’ educational pathways to college by specifically asking “How can the social context of schools keep underrepresented minority students on track to transition to college?”
Perez-Felkner, using a case study of a predominantly Latino and low-income urban charter school, found that students observe and value support from teachers and peers, embedded within the school’s social context.
Collectively, highly structured support networks appear to have a positive effect on student’s college transition outcomes.
“These kids work hard to get ready for college, and the stress on them and their families can take a toll,” Perez-Felkner said. “Some students seemed more likely to persist through these challenging years if they perceive support from their teachers and peers.”
Researchers believe the new findings will help school reform efforts that are attempting to address stratification in black and Latino students’ access to higher education. While the new initiatives include social supports, researchers believe the efforts have not sufficiently focused on how students experience these reforms.
That is, dedicated efforts are necessary to improve the effectiveness of support mechanisms as well as understanding why they have been insufficient.
“Even today, the schools most often attended by underrepresented students tend to offer fewer resources and support,” Perez-Felkner said. “While local, state, and national reform efforts have targeted academic and structural dimensions of schooling, measures of their success rarely take the student perspective into account.”
Researchers employed traditional metrics such as college placement and academic preparation, while leveraging detailed analysis of the social fabric of the school as a potential support network.
This approach was used to create a realistic and detailed picture of the nuanced and at times fraught pursuit of what is increasingly a universal aspiration: college.
Nearly all students in the study encountered hurdles threatening to derail their college ambitions. Researchers found common and often interrelated hurdles or stressors that include: academic grades, predicted stereotype threat, family responsibilities, family estrangement, and burnout.
Among other things, the researcher measured school regard — the feeling students had that adults at school as well as their peers believed in them during stressful times, and specifically, how they regarded their capacity for educational success.
“School regard was associated with students’ persistence through the transition to college — and to stronger colleges — even in the face of academic, socioeconomic, and personal challenges,” Perez-Felkner said.
As recommendations for school and policy leaders, the study underscores that while enhancing rigor and teaching methods are effective for well-resourced students, the non-academic challenges often encountered by underrepresented students can get in the way of their ability to respond to these reforms.
Therefore, interventions to help students achieve a more positive school-life balance and manage non-academic stress may enhance underrepresented students’ successful transitions to college.
“Having school-based allies who think they are intelligent, capable, and worthy of pursuing and realizing their college ambition can be a crucial factor in keeping underrepresented students on-track to successfully transition to college,” Perez-Felkner said.
“Schools should be organized in a way that students have the opportunity to develop close relationships at school, which can enhance and reinforce their aspirations to go to and graduate from college.”
Finally, the study notes that attempts to evaluate school effectiveness may problematically underemphasize students’ interpretation of these reform efforts. Rather, students’ perceptions of their school context may be more accurate measure of their success.
Source: Florida State University