To accurately determine a school’s effectiveness in providing an equitable and accessible education that creates pathways to college for all students, secondary principals need to intentionally repair harmful systems and foster a school climate where supportive relationships are prioritized. Once these relationships develop, leaders can translate the wealth of student-staff trust and support into new forms of data, allowing leaders to be keenly aware of students’ postsecondary needs, strengths, and growth areas.

The 2020–21 school year was marked by layered challenges across the educational landscape—made more difficult after equity issues and racial disparities were heightened.

So, how do you make students feel comfortable enough to search out a college of their choice?

Creating a Space

Creating space is key since college predisposition, search, and choice can be optimized through students’ interactions with knowledgeable adults. Each stage—predisposition: being exposed to opportunities and deciding to attend college; search: researching and narrowing a list of postsecondary institutions; and choice: selecting a postsecondary institution to attend—includes many assumptions about students’ abilities to understand the nuances of these stages without school-based assistance. Creating a space in high schools allows students to use their voices to express their needs and, importantly, any limited knowledge that school staff members can advance due to established, trusting relationships.

LaJoyce Bogan stresses the importance of trust in the college choice process. While she was in college, Bogan served in the Missouri College Advising Corps as a near-peer college adviser, supporting high school seniors at their high school. “The trust was important to me and connected me to the students so that it was not about generating outcome reports for my supervisor, but more for the actual lives these students would lead,” she says. “Building and developing trust is huge and allows us to lead and guide; ultimately, when they place that trust in us, that’s when the magic happens.”

With this in mind, school staff should not “over”stand students’ realities and instead should allow students to tell their stories and be transparent about their needs within a school climate of trusting relationships. Retiring college adviser Julie Kampschroeder stresses, “My students all have a backstory that needs to be told during an extremely vulnerable time in the process. If a student does not trust that you are asking questions in order to get to know them and help them, they will not share the information.” Kampschroeder says she often talks with students about her pathway to college, including being a first-generation college student from an under-resourced background.

Modeling Vulnerability

Part of building a trusting school climate is beingthoughtful about which students are unseen and unheard and considering aspects of your building’s culture or offerings that are not accessible to all students. For some principals, it may be an inaccessible college preparatory curriculum, inequitable access to college-going activities, or limited opportunities for students to have college-related conversations with school staff. One example: when school staff selectively identifies students for scholarship offers. Whether purposefully done or not, this action sorts students into classes of haves—those who have access and opportunities—and have nots—those who are not given access and opportunities.

Principals cannot fix what they do not acknowledge. Vulnerability allows leaders to survey and assess where inequity exists in their schools, within their school climates, and within their educational programs. For example, school leaders can be intentional in their hiring practices, offering staff development opportunities and curriculum development, and partnering with postsecondary institutions. Staff should also be encouraged to challenge misconceptions about college-going advisement and guidance in interactions with students. Not every student experiences the same school setting in the same way. By modeling vulnerability for students, you build a trusting school climate, and students’ perspectives can figure largely in crafting accountable school cultures.

Sharing Counter-Stories to Majoritarian Narratives

We aim for schools to be vulnerable enough to tell students that systems and processes were not designed for “all” students but for “some” students who could navigate barriers. Schools should admit that these barriers have always been framed as colorblind even though they stem from “racial realities.” As a strategy or reform, schools should intentionally lay these racial realities bare and then offer practical ways to disrupt narratives. No longer can schools accept the dismal data concerning the lack of participation of students of color in early college and gifted programs, AP classes, and dual enrollment courses. Critical steps to this work should involve diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff and cultural competence improvement efforts so that schools become the mirrors and windows through which students can see themselves and others.

Schools can partner with colleges and universities to offer virtual visits early and often to expose students to their postsecondary options. These virtual options can include other images and messages from people of color—who can offer cultural wealth and knowledge regarding their postsecondary pathways. Students should be guided carefully and intentionally so they can select the best fit for their unique needs.

To help with postsecondary school choice, schools can also normalize college enrollment. Ritenour High School in St. Louis, MO, partners with the University of Missouri to facilitate access to college admission for students from marginalized backgrounds by placing a near-peer college adviser within the school setting. Under this model, new undergraduates serve as college advisers within a high school for two years, after which time they are replaced by a new near-peer adviser to maintain the currency of the advisement information. By working within our office of college and career advisement, the near-peer adviser—having navigated this process recently— provides invaluable guidance and social capital that high school students desperately need.

“At first, students were not as accepting of a new face, frustrated with the lengthy and confusing college acceptance process, and avoided the outlook altogether while they handled issues in their lives with higher priority and proximity,” Bogan says. “Some students were skeptical that college could be attainable for them, and many had family dynamics that prevented them from making the hard decisions to venture past their ZIP code.” Arguably, for some students and their families, their postsecondary choice does not always include the social and financial capital required to pursue a college degree. It is here that high school faculty and staff—rife with social capital—can offer networking abilities and help that will create a new narrative about college participation and completion.

Reimagining College-Going Cultures and School Climates

High school principals must own their realities, working intentionally to revamp college-going cultures so that all students have equitable access to postsecondary education.

  • Utilize institutional, empowerment, and protective agents to support students and provide guidance.
  • Eliminate barriers to high-quality college preparatory curricula found in dual enrollment and AP courses.
  • Create virtual access to college-going activities such as campus visits, financial aid nights, meetings with admissions staff, and interview processes, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-serving institutions.
  • Normalize college enrollment for students coming from vulnerable populations as a means of changing life outcomes.
  • Create postsecondary leadership team (PSLT) structures to dismantle gatekeeping practices and actions.
  • Set the expectation that all staff contribute to a college-going culture, teaching that the responsibility for providing postsecondary navigational knowledge and support does not rest solely with college advisers and school counselors. This is a shared responsibility, particularly since all instructional staff have matriculated to college and earned degrees.
  • Focus more on equity rather than equality by providing every student with what they need to succeed.

Reimagining school culture and climate requires school leaders to be courageous in their efforts to reflect on current realities, connect with all stakeholders for the sole purpose of improving students’ educational experiences (and ultimately their outcomes), and explore the means to create a more equitable learning environment. While this charge does not rest squarely on leaders’ shoulders, this responsibility begins with them.

Patricia M. Closson, EdD, is an assistant principal at Ritenour High School in St. Louis, MO. Raquel Farmer-Hinton, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.