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by Angela Romans

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On Saturday, April 9, I served as a panelist at the 12th Annual Black Policy Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, entitled “Power and Politics: Driving the Future of Black America.” My panel, “Breaking Barriers to College Access,” featured practitioners from a range of perspectives examining how to increase postsecondary readiness, access, and completion for underserved students.

Panelists began by telling their own stories and connecting those stories to the opening question, “Who are our students?” To further answer this question, we passed out an infographic from Lumina Foundation showing that the majority of college students in the U.S. no longer fit the “traditional” mode of full-time, residential students in a four-year college. When we asked how many of those in the room were themselves first-generation college students, a significant portion of attendees and several panelists raised their hands.

As we shifted to examine barriers to college readiness, I wanted to provide context by presenting a broad, research- and equity-based framework. I highlighted findings from the College Readiness Indicator Systems project, including the three dimensions of college readiness: academic preparedness, college knowledge, and academic tenacity. I emphasized the importance of looking at indicators of readiness not only for students but also at the school and system level, asking how well the system is doing to support the range of college readiness needs for all students. Offering a specific example of a K–12 system implementing policy and practice changes to increase readiness, I described San Jose Unified School District’s work to expand the number of African American, Latino, and low-income students participating in Advanced Placement classes.

Other discussion topics included:

  • supports for youth in/aging out of foster care;
  • ways to help low-income/first-gen students feel a sense of belonging on college campuses;
  • examples of public-private partnerships for college access and success, such as Cities of Promise; and
  • calls for colleges to move Beyond Financial Aid. (I stressed that financial aid is necessary but not sufficient and that low-income students could be supported through local agencies and nonprofits providing services on campus such as food assistance, health care, transportation vouchers, and legal services.)

1178 The session ended with a call to action for attendees to “make one change” to help enact policies or practices that break barriers to college access. Presenters urged audience members to become mentors, support at least one low-income student to visit a college campus in the next year, and vote in the upcoming election for candidates with robust college readiness, access, and completion agendas.

During a month when many students are making college decisions – and First Lady Michelle Obama is planning a College Signing Day to raise awareness about the importance of college-going through her #reachhigher and #bettermakeroom campaigns – the timely and lively conversation highlighted opportunities and challenges facing the field as we work to make higher education more inclusive and accessible for all.

Angela Romans is co-director of District & Systems Transformation at AISR.