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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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