It’s a pretty common theme in movies. An inspirational teacher takes over a classroom of miscreants and provides the strong leadership needed for at least a few of them to achieve academic success and at least consider going to college. But perhaps even more important than a role model at school is someone from the community who has been there and done that, and who can speak openly and honestly about the obstacles and opportunities that really exist at the next level of education.
This is the basis of a new report authored by University of Illinois faculty member Lorenzo DuBois Baber. After an assessment of a college readiness program showed that very few African-American or Latino men were taking part in the program, Baber set out to find out why.
Through interviewing about a dozen minority men in various stages of preparing to go to college or already early in their collegiate career, Baber discovered some fairly obvious truths. But they’re truths worth repeating.
For all of the men – and for countless others who have already fallen victim to the climate – stereotypes and peer pressure were major obstacles. Real or perceived racism at colleges and other obstacles on campus keep many from even trying. Peer pressure to earn income directly after high school – to “become a man” – also has a dramatic effect. Many are looked down on for wanting an education.
Of course, family members at home encouraging them and school faculty and administration providing support were helpful to those trying to get ahead. However, even more important was a peer coming back to talk about their real experiences in college.
“Having students who have been successful at any postsecondary institution go back to their high school and honestly discuss their experiences, challenges and the resources that are available” would provide more students of color with role models that encouraged them to pursue higher education, Baber said. “And it builds this pipeline, this critical mass of successful individuals who are from their community and they can identify with.”
A surprising result from the study was that students found entrance exams like the SAT or ACT to be helpful , not harmful, to their college preparation. Though many think the tests are culturally biased, the students found that it gave them a real sense of where they stood versus people outside of their own school system. It also gave them feedback on what they needed to work on before going to college.
However, all the preparation in the world may not be enough to get them over what I consider to be the biggest hurdle, the rising costs of higher education. The incredible amount it costs to go to school is not a myth. It isn’t just something perceived. It’s real and it’s causing kids to not go to school. Sure, there are scholarships out there for minorities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but is it really enough? Are they accessible enough?
I’m lucky enough to come from a great family and a great community. I never had to deal with any of these issues, and maybe part of me thinks that the worst of it is only in the movies. But I know better. I can only imagine how hard it would be to fight through a school system with apathetic teachers, a school full of kids taunting me for studying, friends going out to make money, a family to try to help support at home, and a huge laundry list of other hurdles. If we want to get out of this recession and make the country great again, we have to make high education accessible to those who want it. And maybe creating programs to send those who have made the tradition back to their hometowns to dispel stereotypes and rumors, and provide real information, is a good first step.