Creating a “College-Going” Culture in Philadelphia High Schools


High School Journalism Workshop, May 2012

PHILADELPHIA, Pa- When Gavin Grant was born, there was no doubt in his parents’ minds that he would go to college.

Grant is also the vice president of Youth Action, a youth-run non-profit where college students help high school students apply and prepare for college.

“Through surveys, we found that a lot of students weren’t doing so well in high school, so they saw that as an indication of how well they’d do in college,” Grant said. “They think college is not for them, but we tell students to focus on getting into school. When you get to college, it’s an entirely new setting. There’s new people and new resources, and you really have an opportunity to grow into the person that you intend to be.”

However the road to college, presents diverse challenges for many Philadelphia high school students.  More often students follow an unsure path strew with bubble sheets and practice essays with little discussion of how their education will translate into an income or future.

The Philadelphia Office of Education recently released a study, showing that only 10 percent of Philadelphia high school students graduated from college from 1999 to 2009.

Mayor Nutter established the Philly Goes 2 College office in Feb. 2010, to double the number of students that go to college and lower the college dropout rate.

According to Barbara Mattleman, the Philly Goes 2 College director, many students do not know about financing a college education because their parents didn’t go to college.

“If none of your parents go to college, you are less likely to go to college,” Mattleman explains.  “So for a child who has grown up hearing their parents talk about college, you think going to college is just a natural progression and you’re more likely to attend.”

According to Mattleman, many students don’t realize they qualify for financial aid and need-based scholarships.

“Many times scholarships don’t get claimed,” Mattleman said. “I get calls all the time from people asking us to send them more applicants for scholarships because not enough people applied.”

Philly Goes 2 College hires college students to work in high schools and help students with the college process, including learning about schools and filling out FAFSA forms.  Participants include students from: Temple University, Drexel University, Martin Luther King Jr. High School and Benjamin Franklin High School.

The Children Left Behind

According the National Center for Education Statistics, Latino and Black students account for 56.2 of all college dropouts, even though they only account for less than 20 percent of the population.

In addition, most colleges still value SAT scores as an indication of a student’s intelligence.  Minorities have consistently done worse on SATS than their white counterparts.  Contributing factors to this disparity include access to SAT prep classes and also quality of education.

Going to college, especially for students from non-college preparatory high schools, is certainly the road less traveled by. Nikki Brown, college advisor at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA, knows this far too well.

According to the School District of Philadelphia, about a quarter of Kensington CAPA students have disabilities.  In addition, 90.6 percent of students are “economically disadvantaged.”  Ethnically, 62.6 percent of students are Latino, and 29 percent are Black.

For many first generation immigrants, the college process is foreign.  Many parents views the venture as timely and don’t understand why college forms require so much personal information. Students and their families’ immigration statuses may also prevent students from even applying to college.

“I believe the problem with undocumented students is a bigger than problem than most people think, “ Brown said. “People just keep it to themselves and don’t even try to go to school because they don’t want to cause trouble for their families.”

Brown also notices that many students aren’t well informed about financing their education and they don’t realize that despite the cost of college, earning a college degree is one of the most important factors in ending the cycle of poverty and increasing overall wages and wealth over a lifetime.

Students also are not well-informed about the resources in their backyard or often don’t understand the advantages of going to community college for two years and then transferring a four-year university.

“There is this negative connotation with CCP.  Students will go somewhere far to get the same thing.  A lot of students also say they won’t take out loans.  They haven’t thought it through.  They don’t realize that it’s an investment. I would like to believe that it will be worth it in the end and they will get a job and be more marketable as job applicants.”

Kensington CAPA works with Philadelphia Futures, a non-profit that helps academically gifted students pursue college careers.  Futures creates incentives for good grades and exposes students to college campuses and summer programs.  Students also take college entrance exams to practice test taking to reveal their weak points.  The test results also come back to Brown and let her know what knowledge students are lacking.

However, according to Brown, if students aren’t part of these programs, they’re left to their own devices and have a small chance of attending college.

Brown also tries to present students with post-high school alternatives that offer more upward mobility and personal satisfaction than flipping burgers.  She has brought in representatives from trade schools and different labor unions.  She also brought in firefighters when they were recruiting.

This month, Philly Goes to College and Youth Action will be hosting event to encourage high school students to pursue higher education.

For more information, visit their websites at:

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