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Got College? Boosting Higher Ed Attendance Rates

By Emily Rogan

Multi-campus initiative leverages local resources to get more students interested in pursuing a higher education.

Kathleen Plinske is on a mission. As the president of Osceola and Lake Nona campuses, part of Valencia College in Florida, she wants her campuses to lead the state in college attendance — even if it takes 10 years.

Research suggests she’s got her work cut out for her. Osceola County currently ranks 57th out of 67 counties in college-going rates for graduating high school seniors in the Sunshine State.

“When you rank 57th out of 67 in anything, two reactions are normal: You either want to try to hide the data, or you want to make excuses to explain the data away,” Plinske says.

Her campuses could have attributed the low college attendance rates to any number of factors. More than 3,000 families have registered for Families in Transition, a regional assistance program for students who are essentially homeless. Many of these students have never considered college an option. Other barriers, such as transportation, and even the application process, make college attendance difficult.

“Too many students simply don’t see themselves as college material,” Plinske says. “We try to change the conversation so that students see that they are.”

Too many students simply don’t see themselves as college material. We try to change the conversation so that students see that they are.

Valencia College worked with the School District of Osceola County; the district’s educational foundation, which provides supplies and scholarships for students; and parents and faculty in the region. “We sat down as a community and talked about what the challenges are, what’s preventing students from going to college, and what strategies might be effective in helping students overcome these barriers,” Plinske says.

The result was Got College?, a multifaceted student  aid and intervention partnership created to get more at-risk students interested and enrolled in college.

Here’s a quick look at some of the resources and strategies the college uses to recruit students as part of the program:

Campus visits: The Celebration Foundation (not to be confused with the county’s educational foundation) subsidizes field trips to Valencia College so students can get a feel for the college experience. The foundation also pays certain college application fees for students who participate. Once on campus, students have an opportunity to meet classmates and friends who might have hailed from similar backgrounds. “They think, ‘Well, if they can do it, I can too,’” Plinske says.

Local conversations: Plinske doesn’t expect students and parents to come to her; she is proactive. Plinske goes out into the community and meets with parents and family members at libraries, high schools and middle schools to provide the information families need — often in both English and Spanish.

Role models: Valencia College enlists current students to return to their former high schools and talk about their experiences and strategies for making college work. Students might talk about juggling full- and part-time jobs with a college course load or commuting to and from campus and scheduling classes around family obligations.

Friendly competition: A guidance counselor suggested that each of the nine Osceola County high schools post a giant thermometer (similar to those used in fundraising campaigns) to track the increases in their annual college-going rate.

FAFSA frenzy: Special programs invite family members to campus, where they can enlist the help of counselors and staff members in filling out financial aid forms.

This collaboration “did not happen by accident,” Plinske says. These efforts are the result of more than two years of talks and collaborations with the local school superintendent and other stakeholders. She calls the program a “true, genuine collaboration” and says it comes down to “delivering the message together.”

What programs does your college offer to better prepare at-risk students for college? Tell us in the Comments.


Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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  • I read this article with great interest because I work for a Federal TRIO program called Upward Bound. Like so many of the Great Society programs, at the start TRIO was well-funded and poised to make HUGE in-roads into increasing access to and success in higher education. While the TRIO Programs continue to make big differences in the lives of low income, first generation, and students with disabilities, they only reach a small fraction of the eligible students due primarily to funding limitations. In Michigan, Senators Levin and Stabenow have been supportive of TRIO and their understanding of the needs of at-risk students has ensured the continued availability of these programs and services. Other states are not as fortunate. As I read the article, I was pleased to see that there are other groups and organizations reaching out to America’s marginalized populations, but I must speak up and remind readers that access to postsecondary education is not enough. At-risk students need skill sets that their lives have not provided them, and the need for supports continues as they navigate the maze of college success. If college attendance rates are going to improve, we cannot simply be cheerleaders pushing the idea of going to college – we must be prepared to provide the preparation, supports, and services that allow these students to succeed so that the horror stories end of under-prepared and under-resourced students dropping out of college with thousands in loan debt.

  • Robert Newton

    Our TRiO Talent Search Program have been doing college access since 1980 and have been very successful at getting students to college averaging 90% of June High School Graduates enrolling in college the following fall after graduation. We work at identifying what a students wants to do (career), then asks them how do you get there? Most of the time what they want to do requires postsecondary training. Given that what they want to do requires additional training we work with the students in putting the plan together to achieve this outcome. Talent Search helps students by doing what it takes to get them ready for this pursuit, college visits, application, FAFSA , ACT prep, etc. Our Talent Search Program has been long supported by Senator’s Levin and Stabenow of Michigan. We our a rural program that has two Talent Search grants working in 16 school districts in Northeast Michigan covering approximately 9,600 sq. miles. nearest four year school is 140 miles away.

  • It is important to note that children living in poverty can compete with their middle and upper class peers if given the same opportunities to learn about the world around them (visits to libraries, museums, summer camp, etc.) and have basic needs met. Early literacy initiatives, high quality pre-school experiences for all and adequate school funding can begin the drum beat around a community that supports a college going culture. Providing adequate and stable funding to TRiO Programs nationwide allow for educators to focus on academics and TRiO to support academic success through tutoring, mentoring, financial literacy, financial aid and more. An educated young person with the appropriate supports can compete and graduate from college – look at the TRiO data that has been gathered since the 1960’s – TRiO WORKS! Thank you to our State Senators Stabenow and Levin for supporting TRiO!


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