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¡Sí se Puede en Colaboración! Increasing College Placement Rates of Low-income Students

by Matthew Militello, Jason Schweid & John Carey - 2011

Background/Context: Today we have moved from the debate of student opportunity to postsecondary educational setting to 100% access. That is, today’s high school settings have been charged with preparing “college ready” graduates. Educational policy has leveraged mandates and sanctions as a mechanism to improve college placement rates, especially in high schools with a high percentage of low-income students. However, little empirical evidence exists to assist us in understanding how college readiness is actualized for low-income students.

Focus of Study: The purpose of this study was to identify specific strategies that schools employ to raise college application and attendance rates for low-income students.

Research Design: This study investigated 18 College Board Inspiration Award winning or honorable mention high schools across the United States. Phone interviews with all 18 schools informed the selection of five case study high schools. Data collection included interviews and observations with high school educators, parents, students, and other community members.

Findings: In this study, we describe evidence within and across the five case schools using a framework that was generated from the first phase of this study. These schools effectively improved college readiness by developing collaborative practices around: (1) Program Management, (2) External Partnerships, (3) Leadership, (4) College-focused Intervention Strategies, (5) Achievement-oriented School Culture, (6) Parental Outreach, (7) Systemic, Multileveled Intervention Strategies, (8) Use of Data, (9) Development and Implementation of Inclusive School Policies, and (10) Routinizing or Offloading Routine or Mundane Tasks.

Conclusions/Implications: This study operationalizes what effective practices look like in high schools with low-income students. The findings move beyond normative models to be implemented across sites to illustrations of exemplar practices that can guide collaborative efforts to enact the specific tasks necessary to improve college readiness for students.

Compulsory education laws in the United States mandate that students complete school through the age of 16. In the second half of the twentieth century school reform focused on high school completion and improvements on student achievement. Two separate forces caused this shift. First, political issues (e.g., the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Cold War in the 1980s) and economic competition (e.g., the A Nation At Risk report in 1983) caused schools to add requirements for graduation . Second, social policies were enacted from all three branches of our government, including: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (judicial branch) and the Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (executive and legislative branches). Measuring student success became an important element of these educational reform efforts. The chosen metric to assess student success has been state, national, and international achievement tests, as well as college attendance rates.

As we entered the 21st century the remnants of educational reform initiatives of the previous century remained. However, additional demands of a globalized world added additional fuel to school reform efforts. The 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, No Child Left Behind, attached sanctions to student achievement mandates. Moreover, college readiness, application rates, acceptance, and completion continue to be important measures of school today. All of these pressures have had the intended effect; that is, the proliferation of access to create a universal higher education system . As a result, K–12 schools, and particularly high schools, have been pressed to make all students college ready. This paper describes how schools that have high percentages of low-income students have high levels of college application and acceptance rates. We begin with a review of the extant literature regarding the problems associated with high school transitions. Second, we describe the research methodology used in this study, as well as the high schools we examined. Next we report on the specific practices that the schools enacted. In the final section we discuss the implications of the study’s findings.


Access to higher education has moved from autonomous, elite access to popular, egalitarian access . Trow (1988) described this as a transition from higher education as a privilege to a product for the masses. As standards and expectations changed, so did the growth of students attending postsecondary institutions. However, Trow also warned that this would lead to a number of unintended consequences, including involuntary students, growth of private providers, and market responses by the higher education institution “to respond to national needs of almost any kind and to try to provide some service, come program to meet this need” (p. 21).1 While his projections can be debated, he was right about the proliferation of students attending postsecondary institutions and the increase in private providers. In 1947, there were 2.3 million students enrolled in 800 universities or colleges (50% were public). By 1986, there were 12.4 million enrolled in 3,340 institutions (77% public); in 2004, 16.9 million students were enrolled in 4,236 institutions (69% public); and in 2008, 18.2 million students enrolled in 4,352 institutions (39% public). The greatest proliferation of high education institutions are two-year public colleges (outpacing increases in four-year institutions 2:1 since the 1970s) and private for-profit institutions (55 in 1976; 214 in 1985; 852 in 2004; 1,043 in 2008; . These trends are not expected to change. In fact, U.S. census projections signify that the supply of college age students (18–24) will only increase over the next 50 years from 20.8 million in 2005 to 26.3 million in 2050. Moreover, while there will be very little increase in the number of White  students (4.8%), the numbers of Asian, Hispanic, and African American college-age students will double .

While postsecondary institutions are proliferating as a response to the increased demand, an important question emerges: What are K–12 schools, particularly high schools, doing to prepare students to become college ready? Currently there is a striking gap among groups graduating from high school and entering college. This gap is prevalent between low and high income and ethnicity. Currently, 67% of college age White students enroll in two- or four-year colleges or universities, while only 11.6% and 9.8% of similarly aged African Americans and Hispanics, respectively, are enrolling . Moreover, lower income high-school graduates are 32% less likely to attend college than then their more well-off peers .

Not being equally represented in higher education is related to diminished life outcomes . For example, the lack of any college education translates to lower earning potential; high school graduates, on average earn $30,000 per year while those with just some college or a bachelors degree earn beyond $45,000 . College attendance has also been found to be closely related to improved health; 76% of college graduates report excellent or very good health, compared to 58% of high school graduates . Even more stunning are differences in incarceration rates; those without a college degree are 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than people possessing a college degree . As a result, there is a clear and present urgency to provide all students with the necessary knowledge, skills, and dispositions to attend college.

Strategies to ameliorate the disparities in college attendance have been rooted in closing gaps in student achievement. This theory of action stipulates that federal legislative actions (e.g., sanctions and incentives associated with high-stakes assessments2) and district and school-level interventions (e.g., prescribed curricular models and scientifically based practices) can improve student achievement and, thus, close the college enrollment gaps. However, the concentrated focus on student achievement alone does not take into account the complexity of college access for historically underrepresented populations . College placement, while anchored in student achievement, is also a function of the history, capacity, expectations, and resources of one’s school (internal capacity) and community (external capacity; , as well as college affordability and financial policies, academic preparation, standards, and admissions, and K-16 coordination .

For example, researchers have argued that communities of low socioeconomic students lack a number of resources and support to gain access to college. For instance, Rothstein (2004) and Lareau  argue that low-income students are disadvantaged because their parents lack a culture of college awareness and do not have the faculties to navigate the often confusing application and financial aid process. Students within communities that provide college-going norms, values, support, and resources are more likely to apply and attend postsecondary institutions. In light of this, understanding the impact that community factors can have on school success, as defined by family and community economic status, access to health care, community values, economic opportunity, and safety concerns among others, are crucial to reconceiving more effective achievement-gap closing efforts.

Traditional efforts that support college admissions in more affluent schools may not include the full range of activities to adequately address the problems inherent in low-income schools. Traditional mechanisms and tasks for increasing college applications and access are often considered school counselor responsibilities . To a large extent the responsibility for the college admissions process has been delegated to the school counselors rather than shared by the school community. While this strategy may work with affluent students, it is inadequate for the task with low-income students. Students from low-income communities must often negotiate schools where high expectations are not the norm, where basic information about postsecondary application and financial aid are not readily available, and where students’ (and their home environment’s) understanding of college is largely foreign and often rife with misinformation .

While traditional theories of action have focused on the individual educator’s practices to improve rates of low-income students attending college, alternative practices have emerged. Such alternative theories of action have centered on systems that recognize their social settings and then collaboratively engage in activities to identify, analyze, and act upon problems of practice. This alternative approach stipulates that the schools are situated in a larger community that is part and parcel of both the problems and solutions. Here responsibilities for addressing important problems are “stretched” or distributed throughout the organization rather than delegated to specific individuals . Individual expertise (including social, material, intellectual, temporal, historical, and cultural expertise) is shared and engaged as needed . From this perspective, collaboration and context are essential for effective solutions (Barab, Evans, & Baek, 2004; Engestrom & Kerosuo, 2007; Kuuti, 1996). Rather than explicit roles of individuals dictating responsibility and engagement, the activities themselves determine involvement .

Recent calls for new counseling models explicitly assert that the activities of school counselors are central to the process of improving educational outcomes . The Transforming School Counseling Initiative (TSCI) places more emphasis on expanding the traditional role and function of school counselors to include distributed school leadership, student advocacy, collaboration, and participation in systemic change . Consistent with the TSCI, House and Hayes  have identified ways in which school counselors should expand their traditional roles to be more actively involved in promoting academic achievement for all students. They indicate that counselors should:


Advocate to remove systemic barriers that impede student learning and success;


Lead and participate in school improvement initiatives;


Work to improve students’ access to rigorous courses and curricula;


Collaborate on the development and implementation of supports for learning;


Collaborate with administrators, parents, and teachers to improve school processes and climate; and


Help to build a school community that institutionalizes the beliefs all students can learn and are capable of academic success.

While many have called for increased collaboration in schools, traditionally collaboration is defined and constrained by professional roles. For example, teachers teach in the classroom, counselors schedule students, and principals manage budget and school operations. However, college preparedness is not based on a single variable, a single need, or static intervention. Rather, complex and fluid activities such as college preparedness deserve equally diverse and complex interventions. Current theories of school leadership (e.g., distributed leadership) and school counseling (e.g., TSCI) view new ways of working together as essential ingredients for school reform. This approach is collaborative and inclusive (e.g., sharing knowledge and power; committee members outside the school walls).3 True collaboration in school settings requires a marked shift from the traditions of isolated practice  to professional relationships anchored in joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire . Wenger defined joint enterprise as the meaning or understanding that the members of a community have negotiated regarding what they will mutually accomplish. Mutual engagement requires that members of the community of practice interact with one another regularly to develop new skills, refine old ones, and incorporate new ways of understanding the shared enterprise. In a community of practice, shared repertoire is the “communal resources that members have developed over time through their mutual engagement” (Wenger, 1999, p. 4). Given this perspective, how school personnel interact around specific activities becomes of greater importance than simple role definitions.

Significant challenges remain as schools attempt to close the college-placement gap. To date, few studies have examined activities designed explicitly for raising college applications and placement for low-income students. The purpose of the study was to identify successful strategies that schools have employed to raise college application and attendance rates for low-income students. In this article we illuminate the activities of school and community personnel that were enacted in five high schools that were nationally recognized for college placement rates in low-income communities.


In the 2005-06 academic year, we studied “Inspiration Award” winning and honorable mention schools, investigating practices that explicitly address the college-placement achievement gap. In response to the growing awareness of the college-placement achievement gap, the College Board created the annual Inspiration Award. This award annually honors three outstanding high schools for achieving high rates of attendance to postsecondary education. The three winning schools receive $25,000 each; schools with an honorable mention receive $1,000 each. To qualify for the award, high schools must document that at least 40% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Winners are selected based on demonstrating significant and consistent growth for all students in three areas: (1) participation in rigorous curricula (e.g., Advanced Placement [AP] courses), (2) enrollment in college preparatory coursework, and (3) rate of students accepted to two- or four-year institutions of higher education. The College Board Inspiration Award statement makes the following assertion: “We seek secondary schools that are truly a springboard to college, despite the social, cultural, and economic barriers that stand in the way of their students.”  


This study was conducted in two phases. The purpose of phase one was twofold. First, the research team provided a description of all Inspiration Award winning or honorable mention schools (n=18). Second, data from the initial phase were used to identify five exemplary high schools for further analyses. In this second phase, we analyzed data to develop five case studies  and then conducted a “variable-oriented analysis”  to generate cross-case findings.  


In phase one, all of the Inspiration schools were invited to participate in the study. The College Board sent each school a formal invitation for voluntary participation in the study. Next, a member of the research team contacted the school principal and the head of the counseling department to confirm participation. All 18 schools agreed to participate. The 18 schools represented seven states (California, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Texas) and the District of Columbia. In phase two, 5 of the 18 high schools were selected for further case analyses (see data analysis section for selection criteria). Table 1 below provides a demographic description of the 18 award-winning high schools.

Table 1. Site Information


Award or Honorable Mention

School Population

Free/ Reduced Lunch

College Acceptance Rates

AP Courses Offered

Racial Majority


2004 AW






65% Hispanic


2004 AW




1999: 10

2003: 16

91% Hispanic


2005 HM




1999: 5

2004: 10

92% African American


2005 AW




1999: 3

2004: 7

90% Hispanic


2004 AW




1999: 12

2003: 16

96% Hispanic


2005 AW




1999: 14

2003: 22

87% Hispanic


2004 HM




1999: 10

2003: 15

81% Hispanic


2005 HM




1999: 13


60% Hispanic


2005 HM





2003: 2

60% Hispanic


2004 HM




1999: 11

2003: 12

98% African American


2005 HM




1999: 4

2003: 6

98% White


2005 HM




2000: 8

2004: 11

91% African American


2005 HM




1999: 20

2003: 32

58% African American


2005 HM




1999: 7

2003: 11

51% Hispanic


2004 HM




1999: 11

2003: 19

98% Hispanic


2004 HM




1999: 18

2003: 19

44% Hispanic


2004 HM




1999: 5

2003: 9

99% Hispanic


2005 HM




2000: 9

2004: 10

43% White

Note: The five shaded schools represent the phase two case study schools.

At least two school educators were interviewed in all 18 schools in the first phase of the study. In all cases the school principal and a representative from the counseling office were interviewed. In some cases additional personnel were interviewed. For example, one site acknowledged that the author of the Inspiration Award application was an AP teacher. As a result, that teacher was interviewed. All of the interviews were conducted by telephone between February and April 2006. Each interview lasted, on average, 50 minutes. Additionally, the research teams collected the Inspiration Award applications from the College Board and were sent relevant documents that were mentioned during the phone interviews.

In phase two, site visits were made to each of the five high schools selected for case analysis. Two members of the research team conducted a two-day site visit between May and June 2006. The research team conducted interviews with 192 people during the five site visits. Most of the interviews were conducted with both members of the research team present and lasted, on average, one hour. Some interviews, including all student interviews, were conducted in a small group format. All of the interviews were taped and later transcribed. The research team also conducted numerous observations (e.g., an academic awards assembly, classes, faculty professional development sessions). Finally, the researchers collected artifacts of exemplary practice (e.g., special program brochures, innovative program documentation) as well as school data (e.g., state assessment results, AP offerings, enrollment figures, test results, postsecondary placement numbers, attrition, drop-out, mobility data rates). The collection of documents and artifacts provided a “ready-made source of data easily accessible to the imaginative and resourceful investigator” . Table 2 below summarizes the participant characteristics in both phases of the study.

Table 2. Study Participants

Phase 1 Participants



School Administrators


College Counselors


Guidance Directors


School Counselors


Regular Education Teachers


Advanced Placement Teachers


Phase 2 Participants



School Administrators


College Counselors


Guidance Directors


School Counselors


Regular Education Teachers


Advanced Placement Teachers






Other Key Personnel (GEAR UP, AP coordinators, career asst. advisors, etc.)



The phone interview protocol that was used in the first phase of the study comprised three sections: (1) demographic information, (2) Likert scale response items, and (3) open-ended questions. The demographic portion of the protocol included: number of counselors and use and support of a formal counseling model. The closed response items consisted of 24 questions in six categories. The six categories were: (1) belief system and role, (2) programs, (3) leadership and advocacy, (4) advocacy in college counseling, (5) college counseling, and (6) data. These six categories were generated from a review of school counseling literature. Specifically, the aforementioned TSCI literature was used to understand if the exemplary normative models were lived within these schools. Each of these items asked participants to provide a specific example. For example, question 16 (within the college counseling category) asked:

School counselors work to assist all students in completing rigorous academic preparation necessary for college and other substantial postsecondary options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, No Stance. Please provide an example of this in your school.

Finally, a set of four open-ended questions completed the phone interview protocol. An example of the open-ended questions is as follows: “Please name two or three specific interventions you think have had the most impact on your school’s selection as an Inspiration School.”  

Three instruments were developed for phase two of the study. To begin, the research team developed an interview protocol. Each protocol included the same elements: (1) demographic information; (2) training, development, and support; (3) initiatives and interventions; (4) contributions and actions; and (5) beliefs, climate, and mission. However, each protocol was semistructured, allowing for follow-up questions . Additionally, the research team edited each question for specific participant groups. That is, the school principal, counselors, teachers, students, etc., were all asked different questions within the context of the aforementioned protocol elements. The second instrument was an observation template. Members of the research team used the template to record their observations. Finally, each member of the site visit team was required to write a memo. These memos were written immediately after each site visit and became an important set of data for this study. These memos did not merely “report data; they tie[d] different pieces of data together in a cluster, often to show that those data are instances of a general concept” .


For the purposes of this article, the analytical process for phase two will be summarized.

The data from phase one generated a set of 10 effective practices . These practices were used to determine the five high schools selected for the phase two case and cross-case analyses. Specifically, the team reviewed phase one data to ascertain which schools had exemplary and innovative practices that were associated with the schools’ high rate of college admissions success.

Data analysis for this study followed the traditions of qualitative research. Our study was nested in a school setting where multiple participants and artifacts would be interpreted . Our initial case studies focused on “why” these schools concentrated on college readiness, application, and admission and “how” they enacted practices to achieve this . Next, we analyzed variables across sites and created a cross-level meta-matrix display of our descriptive data .

Each site visit team was responsible for individually coding the interview transcripts, observation notes, artifacts, and memos. The initial codes were generated from the 10 domain findings from the first phase of this study. Subsequently, each team developed a case memo that highlighted evidence for each code. The team agreed on a three-level metric to assess each code: abundant, some, and no evidence. The team defined abundant evidence as: policy impact (collaborative, inclusive, equitable, and goal oriented), publicized (made public), resources (supported), implemented (used), and evaluated (measured and monitored). Each of these case memos went through a second analysis by the research team using codes derived from a compilation (here we sought representativeness or commonalities as well as uniqueness) of the original codes, as well as codes developed by our review of the extant literature (e.g., the six themes from our phone survey) and findings from phase one (the 10 effective practices). Themes and patterns were then developed to capture the essence of each site and develop cross-case analyses .

This type of research generated a number of limitations. To begin, Miles and Huberman (1984) warn of the perils of cross-case analysis overload, whereby the data becomes unmanageable and the findings vague. As a result, we organized our data and created a data trail . Next, coding data based on the themes from the first phase of the study may have prevented additional themes from emerging. We dealt with the problem by asking broad-based questions and collecting observational data rather than using theme-specific questions. Finally, data that is chiefly generated from self-reports might lack accuracy. To combat this we relied on “various sources of data and member checks from local informants … as judges”  to validate our findings. In the end, our robust dataset was rigorously analyzed to generate findings.


The purpose of this section is to reveal the actual practices of educators in each of the five high schools studied. We begin with a brief description of each high school.4 Next, we use the results of the first phase of this study (10 effective practices) to provide evidence of specific practices in each school.


The New Jersey High School

The New Jersey school is located within the hub of a large city. The school was created in the wake of a civil rights era riot as a way to shed light on the successes that were occurring in an otherwise bleak environment. Today the New Jersey school still stands out as the highpoint in the district. This school houses students in Grade 8–12 and is a magnet school. While it maintains a competitive application process, where 1,400 students a year vie for 120 eighth-grade spots, the principal concedes that any student who requests an interview for admissions is accepted. The school serves an almost homogeneous African American student body (92%). All students who attend the New Jersey school receive free or reduced-price lunches. Every staff member and junior- and senior-level student is assigned students to mentor personally. Staff members collaborate to plan college visits, help with college applications, contact recruiters, and help meet emotional needs. All students are required to complete at least three college applications that must be submitted to the school principal. In the year prior to this study, 100% of the school’s graduates were accepted into college. This school received an honorable mention award as a 2005 College Board Inspiration School.

The California High School

The California High School is located downtown in the regional hub of an agricultural valley. It is one of three local high schools and has the reputation for being the “black sheep” of the district. The staff attributes this reputation to the downtown location, which is close to areas where crime is common. While the school suffers from its reputation, the campus itself belies any negative associations. The main buildings are some of the oldest in California and on the national registry of historic buildings. The campus itself is immaculate. The school serves 3,608 students with comprehensive college and vocational track programs. The school draws a largely Hispanic student body (65%), with smaller populations of White (20%) and African American students (13%). A little under half (43%) of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Administration at the California school is split between elected administrators, teachers, classified staff, and parents through a Shared Governance Committee. The committee has authority to develop school policy in all issues except curriculum and personnel. The college counselor is responsible for college preparation for all students and for the development of a “College Center,” which offers essential college information and provides forms and a laptop-assisted work area for student and parents. The California school annually reports college acceptance rates of above 60% and won the College Board Inspiration Award in 2004.

The New Mexico High School

The New Mexico High School is located in a rural area with a primarily agriculture-based economy. The school has a very large catchment area but is located within commuting distance from a large state university and a community college. The campus itself is a sprawling 100-acre complex, comprising both historic buildings and more recent structures. The academic program consists of both traditional academic courses and vocational offerings. The auto mechanics courses are nationally recognized and the school frequently receives cash awards and grant funding from major U.S. automobile companies. The student body is largely Hispanic (90%) and all of the 2,380 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many of the school’s students are classified as English language learners, migrant students, recent immigrants, or some combination of the three. The school’s educators meet with small groups of students throughout the year and assume enhanced responsibility for advising for career development and college transitions. The year the New Mexico High school applied for the Inspiration Award, 57% of its graduating seniors were accepted to attend colleges and universities. The school was a 2005 College Board Inspiration Award winner.

The Florida High School

The Florida High School was founded in 1903, and has had seven principals in its 103-year history. More than 30% of the school’s professional staff members are graduates of the high school. Like the California and New Mexico sites, the Florida campus is also on the national registry of historic buildings. Though rundown, the campus is an area of pride for the community. Students at the Florida school are largely Hispanic (93%), coming mainly from Cuban and Dominican communities. The school provides English as a Second Language (ESL) services to 30% of its students and free or reduced-price lunches to 74% of its 3,139 students. There are six school counselors (grade level [4], ESL, and special education) and a guidance director, as well as a career specialist who directs career programs, a To Reach Ultimate Success Together (TRUST5) counselor who provides mental health counseling, and a college assistance program (CAP) advisor. The high school reported that 75% of its graduating seniors were accepted to college in 2003 and it won the College Board Inspiration Award in 2004.  

The Texas High School

The Texas High School houses 1,993 students and is located in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The school is one of three high schools in the district. It was selected by Newsweek as one of the top 400 high schools in the nation based on AP tests offered and passed. Like all of the schools in the study, the catchment area for the Texas School is economically depressed. Traditionally, students in the region live a migratory lifestyle or are recent immigrants to the United States (the principal came from a migrant family and the head of the counseling department immigrated to the United States as a child). Today, the rate of migrant students has decreased. Nevertheless, the migratory population of 10% continues to exceed national averages. The student body is almost homogeneous, with 96% of students being of Hispanic descent, and the school serves free or reduced-price lunches to 82% of its students. The academic program at the Texas School includes traditional academic offerings and an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Eight academic counselors and six additional staff members directly assist in counseling: a career and technology counselor, two migrant counselors, a financial aid officer, a GEAR UP6 coordinator, and a social worker. The school offers after-school, weekend, and summer opportunities for course and state assessment remediation and support for AP and college entrance exams. The school publically honors student achievement for those attaining entrance into postsecondary institutions. Each year, approximately 82% of students from the Texas school are accepted into college. This high school won the 2004 College Board Inspiration Award.


In the first phase of this study, the research team reported on 10 domains that characterize important elements of effective, exemplary, and innovative practices. These domains were: (1) Program Management, (2) External Partnerships, (3) Leadership, (4) College-focused Intervention Strategies, (5) Achievement-oriented School Culture, (6) Parental Outreach, (7) Systemic, Multileveled Intervention Strategies, (8) Use of Data, (9) Development and Implementation of Inclusive School Policies, and (10) Routinizing or Offloading Routine or Mundane Tasks. Table 3 below defines the 10 domains, while Table 4 categorizes evidence of the 10 domains for each high school. As shown in Table 4, the schools have a variety of representation on all of the domains. Evidence of practices or strategies in each of the domains is described below.

Table 3. Ten Domains of Effective Practice

Ten Domains



Program Management

Teamwork, collaboration throughout and across the school, and specialized practices (e.g., development of college counseling positions and centers) are hallmarks of effective college readiness programs.


External Partnerships

Schools create and maintain extensive alumni connections, community agency partnerships, college recruiter affiliations, and local college partnerships.



School administrators who support shared power and responsibility create the conditions for effective college readiness programs.


College-focused Intervention Strategies

Effective practices include completion of college applications and personal statements, and the establishment of college placement centers for ongoing assistance.


Achievement-oriented School Culture

Effective college counseling that promotes and support high expectations for all students (e.g., open enrollment for AP courses, required college applications, and celebrating academic success).


Parental Outreach

Schools provide creative opportunities to increase parent involvement. The schools offer programs in multiple languages after normal business hours, and they help parents to complete the required college application and financial aid forms.


Systemic, Multileveled Intervention Strategies

School educators demonstrate the ability to see the big picture; they conceptualize student issues from a systemic perspective and work with teachers, parents, support staff, and administrators to solve problems. Through these collaborative efforts, all stakeholders share in the responsibility of developing student safety nets and support structures to increase academic success.


Effective Use of Data

Schools use data to promote enrollment in rigorous classes (e.g., to identify potential AP students). Additional forms of data are increasingly being used to enhance student opportunities and to trigger support mechanisms for students in need of academic assistance.


Development and Implementation of Inclusive School Policies

Educators are integrally involved in the development and implementation of programs and supportive features of their school. They have a role in both the formation and implementation of school policy.


Routinizing or Offloading Routine or Mundane Tasks

Specific time-consuming bureaucratic tasks that can be effectively and efficiently done by others are taken from professional educators (e.g., inputting student schedules, organization of assessments).

Table 4. Crosscase Matrix of Effective Practices


Program Management

A number of the schools in the study used programmatic strategies to become more efficient and successful in the preparation of students for college. Three specific strategies were perceived as successful: college admissions specialists, the development of a college center, and non-traditional college counseling service hours.

To begin, all five high schools created specific positions for college counseling. One Florida counselor stated, “We have different expertise and we support each other well.” While school counselors continued their work in all aspects of emotional, personal, and career counseling, specialization enabled them to become more efficient and specialized in a given area.

All of the high schools had also developed a college counseling center. The college centers were different in each school, but each had at least one person responsible for the center. One teacher described the importance of the center at her school:

The College Center expands the number of kids that can be looked after. The College Center makes sure that all kids know that and how they can go to college. People from the universities are here daily and the direct contact with students is important. They also get good information to staff.

In addition to making a powerful statement about the importance of college within the high school community, a well-resourced college center serves as a vital source of information, connection, mentoring, and support. One teacher talked about the centrality of the college center and its connection to the academic work of the school:

The College Center is an extension of the classroom. It’s totally and completely collaborative. They support us and we support them. It’s not looked on as a separate room in a separate place that serves a limited number of students.

At the California high school, the career center focuses on exploration and workplace readiness (e.g., internships) and manages college scholarship applications. The college counselor and career specialist collaborate closely with one another. In Texas, the majority of college financial aid coordination is handled in room 302, which has become known as the one-stop shopping place for college. This office houses the financial aid counselor and the GEAR UP coordinator. Room 302 also houses resources that include student advisees and computer access for college testing and financial aid. The Texas high school financial aid officer stated:

Everything is centralized; this helps because the process is changing and this ensures that students get more consistent information. It is essential to have communication consistent. We show students how to create resumes that will help them secure recommendations.

Although the counselors mentioned that they would like to have more involvement in financial aid counseling, they realized that the financial aid counselor has developed an expertise in this area by keeping apprised of current legislation and what colleges require in the financial aid and scholarship process.  

Finally, many of the schools made programmatic changes regarding hours of operation. The college center operated as a meeting point for parents and students to complete the college application process after normal business hours. For instance, the New Jersey and Texas schools offered evening computer access to complete forms (e.g., Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA]) and applications (e.g., college and scholarships). The California school offered parents walk-in access to computers throughout the school day. During peak times the College Center is open until 10 p.m. with both counselors and teachers available to assist parents. One college counselor stated, “We are frequently here until late at night.”


External Partnerships

Postsecondary institutions had a presence in all five of the high schools. The California school partners with both local community colleges and the state university. As the college counselor explained, “Over the past eight years we have had five state university counselors working full-time on campus. On top of this, we have college counselors from another state university and people from Upward Bound.” These counselors deliver classroom guidance lessons geared toward broadening understanding of the benefits of a college education. A counseling technician further explained that the outside college counselors help in “putting a face to college.” A local college counselor added, “We are in the school helping students to understand that college is a possibility, and how kids can go from two-year colleges to four-year colleges. That’s what I did.” The importance and strength of these programs is recognized throughout the building: “The most powerful thing that our counselors do is form partnerships with colleges and universities” (California high school principal).

The New Jersey and New Mexico schools also created a college presence on their campuses by using college and university staff. State university financial aid counselors conduct a series of parent and student workshops on the financial aid process in New Jersey. As the lead counselor explained, “It’s our job to look outside the district for support.” In New Mexico, the researchers observed a distinct college presence on campus. For example, banners were posted inviting students to come to the local university for meetings of various social groups. Counselors at the Texas High School consistently bring in recruiters to speak to classes. As one student stated, “Every month we have two or three college recruiters come here. We get to see other school options.”

Several schools developed very strong alumni-school relationships. These relationships included both teachers using their college and university alma mater to boost college awareness, and high schools using their own graduates to form powerful bonds with colleges and the community. The California school sees a constant flow of past graduates back into its buildings. The administrative aid to the college counselor joked, “They are always just coming back. We can’t seem to keep them away.” The California school uses its returning graduates in several capacities. Many alumni return as teachers; some give information sessions or volunteer; others tutor current students; and some just come to say hello. Additionally, the strong ties to alumni provided specific guidance to students in terms of admissions and life at their alma mater and supporting student internships in their local vocation.

When the college and university experience could not be replicated on the high school campuses, many of the Inspiration schools regularly scheduled and chaperoned visits to postsecondary institutions. In New Mexico and Texas there were annual trips to in-state universities that were scheduled through the counseling centers. Additionally, many of the schools developed partnerships with schools across the country. In Texas and California, there were annual student visits to universities such as Brown, Columbia, Yale, and Kalamazoo College. A college counselor stated that the visits “help make college seem real, within reach. The other kids look to them and say, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’” In addition, a Texas student remarked:

I was nervous the first time I signed up for a visit to a college … I had never seen anything like that [a large university campus] … after walking around and seeing faces in the crowd like mine I realized I could be in a place like this.

Another major artifact of school partnerships that interviewers observed was active academic partnerships with local universities. The California, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Florida schools all exhibited varying degrees of academic partnership with local higher education institutions. The California school actively partnered with a local community college to provide college classes free of charge to any student needing a class that is not offered at the high school. One teacher explained,

Students take the bus to the college to take classes that we are unable to offer here. The bus stops right in front of the school. Not only do they get to take classes there, but they get to see that they can succeed.

That the city bus stops in front of the school and takes students to the university is not a surprise. Both the California and New Jersey schools petitioned local leaders to force the addition of bus lines to accommodate student needs. In New Jersey, students ride public transportation to classes at a local college. One New Jersey student commented, “I really like the opportunity to take college courses through this college.” The New Mexico school offers a very similar program. School busses ferry students 10 miles to the local university. The Florida school arranges a day at a community college, where students take entrance exams and participate in workshops.

Finally, a number of the schools have built business partnerships offering mentoring, internships, and varying degrees of financial support. In Florida, local businesses provide opportunities for work internships. An aerospace company in California provides science mentors in the high school. Moreover, in New Jersey, the school works with local business to help fund programs for students.


In the majority of the schools, we saw evidence that school counselors were powerful members of the school community and participated in the leadership of the school. School counselors were frequently appointed members of the principal’s school leadership team and/or elected members of school governance bodies. In the New Jersey school, the college counselor was appointed to the leadership team at the request of the academic department heads because of her recognized expertise in college standards and students’ needs. In California, two members of the school counseling department were actively involved in the design of a new teacher-mentor program for the school.

In a strong demonstration of distributed leadership, educators in the Texas school added a “Campus Planning” period. The school educators decided to add an additional planning period to their day, which led to an increase in class size. This was not perceived as a bad thing; rather the teachers, counselors, and administrators supported the trade-off of class size for additional professional development time. There are four Campus Planning groups that meet daily during hours one through four in the library.7 To lead this planning session, the school hired a new dean of instruction. The dean of instruction noted, “We are all lifelong learners, that is why we meet in the library. It is important for students to see teachers are also learners.” The campus planning has removed the need for after-school professional development meetings. Each campus planning session varies in terms of the content covered. The principal commented about the campus planning sessions:

It is a very informed meeting and provides instruction guidance. Our Dean of Instruction is basically a trainer of trainers. She provides instructional leadership on pedagogical strategies like ESL strategies … Campus Planning builds team unity and collaboration. We eliminate boundaries and the staff engages in discussions across the disciplines. They get the vertical and horizontal alignment.

The dean of instruction organizes and sets the agenda for each meeting, but also provides time for instruction and announcements by the AP coordinator, the financial aid counselor, the migrant and career counselors, and the school counselors. Counselors take advantage of this time with teachers to discuss matters related to testing, financial aid, character education, AP criteria and content, and laws and responsibilities related to migrant students. This Campus Planning time is void of bureaucratic paperwork or administrative announcements; rather, this time is targeted at elements of teaching and learning.

Educators in these five sites viewed leading college preparation as everyone’s responsibility. While some schools still had elements of a traditional hierarchical leadership structure, elements of street-level or bottom-up leadership elements also existed. When asked why teachers took on leadership responsibilities and worked tirelessly to prepare students for college a Texas teacher said, “These are our students. You can’t afford not to!”

College-focused Intervention Strategies

All of the schools were actively involved in the college application process. We saw clear evidence that educators in these schools were particularly effective in designing and implementing college-focused interventions that addressed the particular issues of low-income, first-generation college students. Most programs had aggressive outreach initiatives that began as early as ninth grade and that included information on the financial benefits of college, the mechanics of the application process, and detailed information on scholarships and college affordability. The New Jersey school required that all students complete college applications as a graduation requirement and began orienting students to the elements of an application in the ninth grade. Many programs incorporated elements of college counseling into classrooms. In some schools, counselors delivered classroom guidance lessons on careers in academic courses. In other schools, all senior students filled out FAFSA and state scholarship applications as part of required civics, government, and math courses. In yet another school, students developed college essays in an English course.

Most of the Inspiration schools began delivering college orientation programs when students were in the eighth grade. In Texas, the high school staff organizes an annual March parent night focusing on college preparedness, financial aid, and the importance of AP coursework. Inspiration schools also offered orientation and outreach programs specifically geared to the financial aid process; these programs took different forms in each of the schools. Some schools had students help guide their parents through the financial aid process. In Texas, counselors work with parents to get copies of tax information that are then used by students in their 12th grade Government and Economics  classes to complete the FAFSA form. In addition, financial aid nights are held to offer parents access to both computers and the help of staff in completing financial aid forms. The California school also offered parents open access to computers to complete FAFSA forms and integrated this process into students’ regular academic program by requiring completion of this form as a math assignment.

New Jersey provides a coherent study of the expectation of, involvement in, and support for the college application process. The graduation requirements at the New Jersey high school include the completion of college applications, financial aid forms, and scholarship requests for three colleges and universities. Students complete the applications in their core courses: personal statements in English and FAFSA forms in math. Students are then required to hand these applications directly to the school principal.8 The principal in the New Jersey school stated:

We are advocates of the child. Everyone in the school focuses on student achievement. Everyone speaks to academics. Kids know we are all in cahoots with each other about their success…. Our objective for every student who enters this school is for them not only to think about college, but beyond college…. The counselors’ role is to make sure all students go to college; this is just expected.

Finally, in New Mexico, the school has a Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) program in which students who achieve core requirements may earn up to $1,000 in college tuition. Some admitting colleges match the MESA funds. Additionally, New Mexico has a summer camp for students on addressing college issues. In the end, these schools have implemented a number of interventions to get students college ready. A Texas counselor explained, “We need to help students advocate for themselves…. Parents need to see scholarship money.”

Achievement-oriented School Culture

We saw clear evidence in most schools that school counselors were active participants and leaders in establishing a climate that conveys high expectations for all students, encourages students to accept challenges, and supports students in meeting those expectations. One school counselor indicated that while she knows that not all students will attend college, she wanted the students’ choices to be based on their interests and aspirations, not on inaccurate beliefs about their ability to do college work. In many schools there was evidence that counselors encouraged the vast majority of students to take challenging courses (e.g., college prep, honors, and AP), monitored student progress, and connected students to academic support. Beyond promoting academic rigor, a number of schools publically and systematically recognized students for their academic success.

At four of the five high schools, AP programs with open enrollment policies were in place. Each of these schools encourages and supports the growth of a rigorous college preparation curriculum. The staff in California has embraced this policy. One teacher said, “AP open access encourages everyone to take AP courses. Our philosophy is if you are not ready, we’ll get you ready.” Teachers, counselors, and guidance technicians encourage students to take honors and AP courses and strong supports are available to help students succeed in these rigorous courses. For example, tutoring from teachers and peers is available before school, after school, and during lunch.

All of the schools involved in this study had significant numbers of students taking AP classes, and counselors in these schools played a significant part in creating a culture that prioritizes rigorous course taking. In several schools, AP teachers talked about the importance of staying in regular contact with the counselors. An AP teacher in Texas stated, “I can go into the counseling office and talk to them … [and they] seek input from me about a student they are concerned about.” The counselors also play an active part in promoting student involvement in AP classes. In Florida, teachers, students, and administrators talked about the importance of school counselors supporting students to stay in challenging classes even when they are struggling. The AP coordinator stated:

Once a kid is in a class, they [the school counselors] don’t let them out unless the teacher really thinks they can’t do the work, and since the placement was carefully considered in the first place, usually the kid’s in the right place, and they just have to work harder than they thought.

In several schools there was a real focus on all adults in the building being involved in the AP process. The AP director in New Jersey stated, “Even if you are not teaching AP, all teachers should attend the AP trainings.” In Texas, the principal said, “We have made it cool to be in the AP classes…. Everything at our school revolves around academics.” In order to encourage AP course taking, the Texas school has open enrollment for AP classes, which has been embraced by the staff. The AP calculus teacher stated, “It’s not about the test [AP], but about learning AP material,” and the Texas principal noted, “AP is a program not a course, a course not a test.”

These schools support extensive student involvement in AP courses in a number of ways. The dean of instruction in Texas discusses with the teachers different strategies that can be used to keep students in AP classes. In many buildings AP grades are weighted and have a pass/fail option. AP teachers are required to tutor students (with availability dependent on their schedules) in Texas and Florida. Counselors stress the importance of AP courses for college. A student in Texas put it this way, “This school started pushing kids to succeed. They make it hard for you to get out of AP classes. The teachers will literally refuse to let you drop out. They will make you bring in your parents.” In this school students also have to meet with the principal one-on-one in order to leave an AP course. This principal stated, “AP courses are important; one kid even quit football for an AP course!” In New Jersey, students are provided scholarships and test waivers for AP exams. The district pays for all students to take the PSAT for two years, from Grades 7–9, and for students to take the AP exam. Unused waivers from other schools are used in order to provide all students in the school with two or three SAT waivers.

One of the most visually striking aspects of the five schools was the sheer public display of accomplishments noticeable at each site. Each school went out of its way to celebrate and recognize genuine accomplishment. The Texas school publicly honors student achievements in attaining entrance into postsecondary institutions. An academic honors assembly highlights the annual scholarship recipients. Additionally, the financial aid officer hosts a Letter of Intent signing ceremony each year. The letter signing is a ceremony that provides publicity for students when they choose to attend a college at which they have been accepted.  

In the California school, college acceptances are posted on a “Wall of Stars.” Every time a student is admitted to a college he or she gets a star with his or her name on it; eventually, the star of the college they accept gets a special color code. The principal in this building announces the names of students who receive acceptances every Friday on the PA system. Students who are accepted to college get special banners to wear at graduation. Similarly, in New Jersey, pennants decorated the locker of each senior. These pennants represented each school where students had been accepted. The principal bluntly stated, “We are proud of them so we should let them know it.”

Parent Outreach

Many students in the five high schools studied will be first-generation college attendees. As a result, providing parents with information about the college application process and college itself is of paramount importance. Throughout the findings of the study there are elements of parental assistance. For example, many of the schools have flexible hours and open access to school college counselors. The New Mexico high school was in the process of creating an “Applying to College” handbook to help parents. In Florida and Texas most of the staff is bilingual, so programs and communication are delivered in both Spanish and English to accommodate Spanish-speaking parents. The Florida and California schools frequently hold community events on campus to foster the sense among families that the school is part of their larger community. Both of these schools frequently “piggyback” college outreach programs with special parent meetings. The California school even holds parent barbeque nights that are scheduled to coincide with the release of student progress reports. As one of the career counselors at the school explains, “Parents can stop by the school after work, pick up the report card, get something to eat, consult with counselors and teachers, and talk with their friends.”

The schools in Texas and Florida also distributed the responsibility for parent outreach by involving the rest of the school staff or by employing specific “community outreach specialists.” These specialists are hired to connect with parents who are not able to come to school, delivering information instead through phone calls and home visits. The assistant principal in Texas described her school’s outreach efforts: “We have parental involvement assistants that work on campus with parents. She places calls and informs parents about opportunities, has parent meetings monthly, and visits kids’ homes.” At the California school, school counselors and teachers take on this role. A counselor explained, “I make home visits. There’s no better way to develop that bond.”

It is worth noting that our data indicated that while all the schools made strong efforts to include parents in the college readiness and admissions process, many schools were frustrated with the continued lack of direct parental involvement. As stated previously, schools engaged in strategies to provide more access to the school and to reach out to parents. Nevertheless, some of the schools took a more active role, where the school represented the students in college admissions process; that is, the school became in parentis loci. This was most apparent in Texas and New Jersey where school educators created environments where almost all elements of the college admissions process were completed without any parental involvement, save the provision of federal income tax forms to complete the FAFSA forms. A Texas counselor best summarized the amount of responsibilities these educators were assuming:

the collective message of the counselors to parents is that nothing can stand in your way of sending your child to college. It is our job to demystify access to college and help all students complete college preparation, testing, applications, and financial aid forms.

Systemic, Multileveled Intervention Strategies

In several schools, we found evidence that school counselors employ systemic thinking to understand problems and use systemic interventions to create solutions. For example, one counselor described the interventions needed to promote a school goal of having more students take AP courses. She noted that it was necessary to help students understand the importance of engaging in rigorous coursework; to help parents understand that it was often better for students to take rigorous courses (even if grades suffered); to help teachers understand how to teach to a broader range of students; and to help administrators understand that holding teachers accountable for average AP exam scores (rather than increases in number of students taking AP examinations) was counterproductive. Additionally, adult-to-student and student-to-student mentoring were popular interventions.

At each school various forms of mentoring occurred. In California, counselors and teachers connected students with adults in the building with the explicit intent of fostering college application. As the head of the California math department explained, “I was once one of these kids. You don’t get to go college without the help of people who know what they are doing, without talking to people who have been there themselves.” In California, mentoring took place both formally and informally. Similarly, the school counselors in Texas identified one specific group for extra attention. The head of the counseling department works with all incoming immigrant students for their first year. This counselor immigrated to the area as a youth and therefore personally knows the challenges involved with the transition to a new country. He works with both the immigrant students and their parents. He stated the importance of not allowing recent immigration or limitations in the English language to become a barrier to success for students: “We have a meeting for recent immigrants. We personalize our attention to all of them. The knowledge is there locked up in the Spanish Language.” An immigrant student9 added:

Teachers go above and beyond and I feel guilty because I feel I have to achieve for them. When I came here from Mexico I didn’t know English well but I wanted the challenge. My counselor (the head of the counseling department) worked hard for me and let me take physics and chemistry my freshman year instead of biology. Then as my English got better I was allowed to take biology. The counselor was willing to work with me.

College guidance in New Jersey is conducted through direct services at certain levels and student and staff mentorship at others. In the 11th grade, each student is assigned a teacher as a mentor for two years for the purpose of college and career counseling. Students meet with mentors each week to review academic, personal, and college planning issues. This mentoring program is funded through the principal’s discretionary funds, which are used for teacher training in this type of mentoring and in- and out-of-school activities. Activities include college trips, dinners, and cultural experiences (e.g., the museum, sporting events, etc.). All staff members have mentorship responsibilities for two students. The principal explained that “these relationships between teachers and students is of parent and child.” In turn, 12th-grade students mentor 8th graders under the motto of “Pay it Forward.” Older students meet with their younger peers before and after school for personal tutoring and discussion about the college application process. This mentoring program serves as both indoctrination into school culture and academic advisement. As one student of the New Jersey school explained, “Yeah, there’s lots of competition between students here, but not in a bad way, it’s about learning. We all help each other out. We all want each other to succeed so we do what we can.” These students also serve as a connection to college for their partners once they graduate, frequently returning to talk about the experience.

Effective Use of Data

Effective use of data by school counselors was noted in only a few schools. Specifically, California and Texas documented levels of participation in programs (e.g., parent nights) and college placement outcomes (e.g., college acceptances and scholarship awards) in order to present accountability data to administrators. These schools formally presented and reported these data annually.

While some programs at times used data as a decision-making tool, no program made extensive use of data in program planning. Some schools used outcome data (e.g., number of college applications) to evaluate the impact of selected interventions. For example, one school noted that when a program to finance AP examinations ended, the number of exams taken decreased by 50%. One school counseling program was in the beginning stages of adopting a formal data-based decision=making model for the school counseling as part of a statewide reform initiative program (Dahir and Stone’s [2003] M.E.A.S.U.R.E. framework).


Development and Implementation of Inclusive School Policies

As the expectation of college readiness has increased in each school, so has the growth of new policies to support the expectation. There was evidence that teachers and counselors in these schools took on additional leadership roles and responsibilities. Examples included flexible hours for school counselors (California), open enrollment for AP courses (four of the sites), and the development of additional professional development time (Texas). The college counselor in New Mexico stated:

I realized that if counselors are going to have a broader impact, we need to be on committees that give us access to policy decisions and budget. By doing so, I was able to get a budget which funded 30 laptop computers for the college office.

Routinizing or Offloading Routine or Mundane Tasks

In many schools, there was evidence that nonprofessional aspects of the counselor’s work were handled efficiently and effectively by support staff. Several programs employed guidance secretaries to handle clerical tasks (e.g., typing support letters, managing test booklets) that freed counselors to focus on direct assistance for students. At these sites counselors also receive support from counseling specialists (e.g., migrant counselors), coordinators (e.g., AP coordinators and financial aid officers), and administrators (e.g., principals and department chairs). The support ranged from assisting counselors with test coordination (e.g., state exams and AP exams) to student orientation to college visits. At three of the Inspiration schools, on-campus health centers provided crisis intervention and ongoing mental health counseling to students. Delegating this responsibility to other professionals allowed counselors more time to focus on academic and career issues. At the California school, a clinical professional consults with school-based counselors and social workers provide crisis intervention for more severe issues. In Florida, a TRUST counselor handles most of the crisis counseling and group work. Because she is not responsible for any administrative work, she is free to focus exclusively on mental health counseling. The TRUST counselor is knowledgeable about community resources and coordinates most of the referrals and case management triage with community agencies.

The California school used “guidance technicians” to handle routine student scheduling and reported that this practice enabled the school counselor to focus on developmental interventions, teacher consultation, and parent outreach. Counselors in Texas also conducted much of their work in classrooms, and counselors for each grade level were able to take advantage of courses that primarily housed grade-specific students (9th grade World Geography, 10th grade World History, 11th grade U.S. History, and 12th grade Government/Economics). This practice was also useful in New Jersey; however, the primary responsible personnel were the grade-level department chairs, not the school counselors.  

These voices provide an insight into an all too familiar axiom: If counselors are charged with overseeing student achievement and college placement, then they must have requisite support, time, leadership, ability, and professional development. Outsourcing strategies allowed counselors to work with students in both academic remediation and career planning. At all five sites, we found that student remediation became a universal responsibility and college planning became a proactive intervention. Outsourcing created the needed space to carry out these duties.

A number of key factors allowed these schools to create, implement, and sustain these practices. These factors are discussed in the following section.


The specific themes noted above reflect important characteristics of schools that have found a way to be successful in addressing the gap in college admissions. Success was possible because educators shared a common commitment to the importance of promoting successful college transitions and because they found unique ways of working together to achieve a desired goal. Furthermore, these educators were able to enlist parents and community members in the promotion of successful college admissions. We begin our discussion by commenting on how all of the schools enacted elements of rigor, relevancy, and relationships. Next we contrast our findings with the traditional notion of role-based responsibilities for college placement to a collaborative approach.


Rigor and relevancy have taken root in curricular and pedagogical theory . However, these terms have primarily resided in statements of high expectations in a school’s mission. In this study’s schools, aspects of rigor became operationalized with specific strategies such as open enrollment for AP courses, training all teachers in AP courses, and the requirement that all children apply for college. Similarly, relevancy for these schools has come to mean a moral obligation and the development of a college-going culture. Educators in these five schools did not cite external variables (e.g., students’ home circumstances) as barriers to achievement, nor did faculty members discuss the need for additional compensation for the work after school hours with students. This commitment was more than a professional commitment; it was a moral obligation. As the principal explained, “We have a core group of teachers (veterans) that have been here for a long time…. We’ve created a culture of unity.” There is very little teacher turnover in the school. The head of the counseling department stated, “Many of us are products of systems that did not work—we have a passion for what we do as a result.” The lived rigor and relevancy in these schools have become factors that foster a belief in college and an attitude of success.

The rigor and relevancy was enacted because of relationships within the school and with the surrounding community. Educators in these schools connected with important agencies to create a college-going culture. For some schools this meant restructuring existing functions, and for others this meant forging new relationships. For example, the Texas high school has developed a pipeline between their school and a prestigious private university in the Midwest. In fact, the college admissions representative annually visits, recruits, and offers scholarships to South Texas students. This is just one example among many where an individual school educator initiated a relationship between the school and an outside agency. The true power of relationships is demonstrated in the transformation from the specific role educators have to a collaborative and student-centered approach. That is, the adult-to-student relationships in these schools centered on college preparedness and the adult-to-adult relationships focused on specific college readiness tasks.


Successful college transition is an outcome of schooling that requires the combination of the efforts of several stakeholders on a complex set of tasks. Most schools proceed from the tacit assumption that the best way to manage this complex process is to divide the labor by having each stakeholder responsible for different types of tasks (see Figure 1 below). For example, school counselors are responsible for college counseling; parents are responsible for college visits and financial aid applications; teachers are responsible for teaching courses that are required for college admission and other advanced placement courses that advantage some students; students are responsible for filling out applications and writing essays; and school clerical staff is responsible for forwarding transcripts and letters of recommendation. If everyone does their part, all the tasks are accomplished and the process is successful. However, if any one stakeholder fails to adequately meet his or her responsibilities, the process fails because all the component tasks are necessary for success. In our experience, many schools (particularly affluent schools) organize college placement efforts in this way. Such a model can be successful for a majority of students, as the stakeholders have the knowledge and resources to fulfill their assigned responsibilities.

Figure 1. Role-based approach


In the schools we studied, however, there was a different dynamic at play. Rather than roles dictating and restraining responsibilities, stakeholders were able to work together in creative ways to engage in activities that promoted successful college transitions. In the schools we studied, a different system for the division of labor around college transitions was apparent. Responsibilities for accomplishing tasks were shared and higher levels of collaboration were noted among different stakeholders. For example, in New Jersey, the task of completing the FAFSA form was accomplished through the direct collaboration of the math teachers, counselors, and administrators. Traditionally, this responsibility is placed on parents. This assumes that parents have a knowledge base in terms of where to access the forms and how to fill them out, as well as comfort with disclosing financial information. In New Jersey, parents played a limited role in this task. Rather, the school-based team simply collected the necessary information (tax forms) from parents and worked with students in math class to complete the forms. The task of completing the FAFSA forms in schools shifted the responsibilities away from any one person to become a natural part of a student’s junior year in high school and established a structure to support the completion of that task. As a New Jersey student noted, “It is not just the counselors or teachers who help us, everyone knows how to fill out a [college] application.” The California school was also successful in the completion of FAFSA forms, but they took a very different route. In this school, parents and counselors worked closely with one another to complete the forms. Administrators and college partners played an important support role in this task. For instance, the administrators allowed counselors flex work time to help parents complete the forms online after hours in the school’s computer laboratory.

College visits are another example of a collaboratively enacted task. Students visited colleges with their teacher mentors. This too is traditionally the responsibility of parents. In affluent communities, most parents have the knowledge, comfort, and resources to support college visits, so much that it has become a rite of passage. In this example, teachers provide first-generation college students with the valuable experience of stepping onto college campuses early in their high school careers. Additionally, the school counselor served as a chief instructional officer in the Texas high school. Traditionally school counselors were “gatekeepers” to the college admissions process and advised student as to what courses to take. As a chief instructional officer, the school counselor led daily teacher groups to improve educational content, instructional practices, and especially the relationship of the content and practices of college admissions. This shift in responsibility enabled all educators to become conscious and informed participants in the college admission process.  

It is interesting to note that educators in these schools seemed to take on a quasi-parental role in instances where their influence was needed and in ways that continued to respect the role of parents in directing their children’s education. Educators described ways they pressured students to take rigorous courses, “hounded” students to make sure that financial aid forms were turned in, and used the power of their relationship to make it hard for students to drop rigorous courses. Students generally interpreted this type and level of involvement as evidence that educators cared about them. A New Jersey student stated, “Everyone around me encourages me to go to college—there is an environment of college enrollment here … teachers will say, ‘I want you to go to college.’” Similarly, all these schools were at ease with and respectful of their students. As the New Jersey counselor said:

We do not think in terms of deficits, we do not use pronouns like they and them, rather we and us…. We want kids to have success beyond the pockets of our class. We want them to have scholarships and choice, not just financial aid and community college. And we don’t want them to have to take remedial classes when they go to college.

Echoing the same sentiment, a Texas counselor explained that their philosophy is that “College is not an option, but a plan…. It’s no longer if students want to go to college, but where.”

We saw many more examples of this type of shift in roles and responsibilities. Through innovations and initiatives, responsibility has not become the trademark of any individual in the five schools. Rather, there is a clear sense in all the schools that the important and difficult work that must be done to improve student achievement cannot be done by one person in any one position. There was fluidity around tasks. People with specific skills, knowledge, and dispositions were brought together around certain tasks and worked together effectively. Because low-income parents might not feel as comfortable becoming involved in the bureaucratic processes of school in general and specifically the college admissions process (Lareau, 2000), school personnel are faced with playing a greater role for students in school. Similarly, rather than maintaining a distinct professional distance, educators in this study got involved more directly in the lives of students and, in some cases, assumed quasi-parental responsibilities. Educators in these schools lived rigor and relevancy, and they did so through building: building student capacity, the school’s organizational capacity, and relationships. Consequently, these schools had celebrations, because they now had academic achievements to celebrate.

When tasks are handled collaboratively with several stakeholders sharing responsibility, creative ways to accomplish the tasks can be found that can compensate for any “weaknesses” in the system. Educators in our study exhibited a sense of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and a shared repertoire in a variety of activities in their schools . Educators and community members were engaged in the joint enterprise of assisting students. Educators and community members were mutually engaged in efforts to develop student “safety nets” to improve student opportunities and achievement outcomes. Educators and community members shared their repertoire to resource and lend support to their work. This type of high-functioning accountability has been dubbed professional accountability , reciprocal accountability , and comparative advantage accountability . Whatever the terminology, one thing is for certain: the accountability that was played out in these schools was not an a priori model driven by external mandates and sanctions. Rather, the model is an ex post facto representation of actual strategies, events, and actions that were manifested in the daily practice of these educators.

The elements of this collaboration-based approach seem to be the foundation of the effective work done in these schools. That is, there is a relentless push to simultaneously work on content, structures, and relationships to foster a college-going environment. This has not been the tradition of the American high school. Traditionally, assumptions were made about those capable of attending college. The set of assumptions included the following: (1) students that have an interest in college will apply, (2) students’ academic achievement is the determining factor for college interest and acceptance, and (3) parents have the ability to negotiate the college admissions paperwork and seek appropriate financial assistance. However, such assumptions were not made in the schools we studied. In the schools we studied, the problem of college placement was the focus—artifacts and activities were created, people were not merely assigned. The responsibility was not for people or assigned roles, but for the tasks that educators believed were their professional responsibilities. Figure 2 below illustrates this new concept of collaboratively enacting tasks. The figure also highlights two different cases of the task of completing FAFSA forms previously discussed.

Figure 2. Collaborative-based approach



This study illuminates schools that were able to transform the traditional grammar of schooling on two fronts. First, educators and community moved beyond the strict conceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the college transition process. Second, by doing so, stakeholders were able to find and enact creative ways to engage in required college transition activities. While traditional division of labor may have been sufficient for more affluent students, in these schools collaboration allowed for greater flexibility in order to create contextually appropriate solutions. That is, the factors found to be important in this study were operationalized differently from school to school. Consequently, there are a number of important implications for this work.

The magnitude of change needed to create the equitable environments—success for all students—required new approaches. The answers for these schools resided less in the solutions and more in the process in which solutions were generated, tried, and tested. The solutions that were created, enacted, and sustained are not outside of the realm of possibility. That is, while the research team had anticipated thinking and action “outside” the traditional paradigm to obtain the results these schools were getting, what was discovered was that educators at these schools simply did whatever it took to help and guide their students. This is not to say that simply taking these strategies and depositing them in another school will work. On the contrary, these schools all leveraged their unique context to catapult the moral obligation to students as a community endeavor. Working toward a purpose rather than within specific roles certainly provided these schools, and more importantly, the students in these schools, with equitable opportunities.

The implication for schools is not to subscribe to a normative model, but to devise their own set of practices that are grounded in the factors of obligation and collaboration previously mentioned. Implications also reside in the halls of preservice and certification programs from teachers, principals, and school counselors. Programs must create instructional and field experiences that champion elements of collaboration and inclusion. That this takes place simply because an individual wants to work in schools is an assumption that cannot be made. Rather, the knowledge, skills, and belief that all students can attend college and strategies needed to make this happen require institutional vision and action.

Larger implications and questions also emerge from this work. Specifically, the proliferation of postsecondary institutions poses new questions: What is the quality of emerging postsecondary institutions (especially community colleges and online providers)? What is the economic cost of attending postsecondary institutions? That is, are the costs of attending college (debt) matching the benefits (income)? Is it now even more difficult to access prestigious four-year institutions? In other words, are the traditionally prestigious schools simply becoming more elite? If today’s college degree is becoming yesterday’s high school diploma, we must ascertain what this means for our high school students before blindly pushing them to take the college route.


Despite overwhelming odds, the five high schools in this study have made remarkable progress to give their students the opportunities they deserve. These schools have created college-ready students in a college-going environment. Educators in these settings have operationalized or brought to life vague hyperboles such as high expectations. The findings of this study suggest that living what needs to be done is a result of the following: (1) a moral obligation rather than external accountability; (2) collaborative activity-based approaches rather than traditional role boundaries; (3) partnerships with universities and businesses rather than isolation; and (4) realistic assumptions about first-generation college students. The schools promoted equitable college transitions with new approaches including: (1) removing barriers to student application to postsecondary institutions (e.g., standardized test waivers, completion of college admissions paperwork after school hours or embedded within school courses), (2) promoting and enhancing community participation in schools, (3) engaging in school policymaking that promotes student opportunities (e.g., open enrollment for AP courses) and targets student remediation, and (4) outsourcing the technical, bureaucratic aspects of the counselor’s job.

For many schools, changes in practice stem from external demands or ruptures. In the schools we investigated, the real rupture was the transformation of the belief that all of their students could attend college, the shared responsibility for the defined problem of practice, and a shift to collaborative leadership that allowed committed members of the entire community to take action. Here students were able to perceive and experience high expectations because the stakeholders identified college as the central goal, were able to come together to collaborate, and shared expertise to promote college transition. As a result, these schools are truly worthy of the Inspiration Award as they can inspire other schools with similar circumstances to expect and create opportunity for all students. Hard work alone will not ameliorate the problem of the underrepresentation of low-income students in college. However, these cases offer promising leads that it can be done! The realization of belief is exemplified by a Texas teacher who constantly reminds her students, “¡Sí se puede!” In the Texas school, as in the other four high schools, this is not just rhetoric, but carried through in the actions and structures that close the college admissions gap. The modification of current practices and systems in our schools can provide communities and school educators with a similar credo: “¡Sí se puede en colaboración!”


This research was conducted under the auspices of the National Center for School Counseling Outcome Research with the generous support of the College Board and its National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA).  Collaborations with Ms. Pat Martin (Assistant Vice President) and Dr. Vivian Lee (School Counseling Specialist) of NOSCA were essential to the successful completion of this project. Additionally, we are thankful for the helpful comments received from the editorial team at Teachers College Record and the four anonymous reviewers on earlier versions of this article. Finally, we are extremely grateful to the educators, students, and parents of all 18 high schools that were studied. Without their thoughtful insights this study would not have been possible.


1. Interestingly, Trow (1970) also warned that such universal access may lead to higher education to look more like K–12 schools where “compulsory attendance increased problems of student motivation, boredom, and the maintenance of order” (p. 25).

2. NCLB created a new accountability system where sanctions are now affiliated with mandated assessments. These state-level assessments are used to determine Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by the federal government. A school’s AYP status is used to determine sanctions. However, what the sanctions look like varies from state to state. For example, some states have no associated sanctions for students; some have rewards based incentives (e.g., Michigan has a scholarship fund for those passing the state assessment); and others have varying degrees of student retention or diploma attainment policies.

3. For more information on community/school relationships see Epstein and Sanders (2006), Lutz and Merz (1992), and Sanders and Harvey (2002).

4. Pseudonyms were used throughout the article.

5. The TRUST school-based program to combat substance abuse is based on the idea that schools must take a leadership role in addressing the substance abuse problem among youth. TRUST counselors provide prevention, identify and counsel students at risk early, and intervene with students already using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

6. GEAR UP is a federally funded program to promote attendance in postsecondary institutions by working with students from the middle school to graduation. The Texas GEAR UP coordinator began working with middle school students in order to expose them to college opportunities. The coordinator started out tracking 403 students in the middle school and 368 of these students will graduate in 2006.

7. Each group consists of a representative from every department. Specific departments are unable to meet together because of scheduling difficulties.

8. Each student was required to submit three applications to the principal. The principal required four applications if the original three were all out-of-state institutions.

9. This student emigrated from Mexico to begin his ninth grade year. He will attend MIT in the fall of 2006. He took 5 AP classes has taken a total of 12 AP classes while at this Texas high school. He also took 16 AP exams; he passed 9 of them.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 7, 2011, p. 1435-1476
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16074, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:22:18 PM

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About the Author
  • Matthew Militello
    North Carolina State University
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW MILITELLO is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department at North Carolina State University. He was previously an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he was the educational administration program coordinator. Militello was also a public school teacher and administrator in Michigan for more than 10 years. His research interests focus on how leadership is (or is not) transformed by specific school activities such as the use of school data.
  • Jason Schweid
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst
    E-mail Author
    JASON SCHWEID is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the Department of Education Policy, Research, and Administration. Schweid was a secondary school teacher in South Texas and New York City. He served as the research assistant for this study.
  • John Carey
    University of Massachusetts at Amherst
    E-mail Author
    JOHN CAREY is the director of the National Center for School Counseling Outcome Research and a professor of school counseling at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His research interests center on the documentation of the outcomes of school counseling programs and activities and on the implementation of effective school counseling practices.
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