Dr. Shannon Coulter, director of Assessment, Accountability, and Evaluation for SDCOE, is a research junkie with a passion for using data to help students succeed. So as his team began pondering how SDCOE could help get more San Diego County students into four-year colleges, he naturally turned to research.
After reviewing existing literature and working with colleagues in the College Access Network, Coulter hit upon a genius, but simple, idea: What if we put together a guide that would dispel some of the myths that keep students from applying to a four-year college? Would that shift their thinking and help them apply?
Coulter's research found that many students choose not to apply to a four-year college because they think it is too expensive, or that going to a community college is a better choice, or that college applications are expensive.
"Especially when it comes to students who come from low-income families," Coulter explained. "They really struggle with the cost of college, not knowing that there's a huge difference between the sticker price of college and the net cost," or what families actually pay to attend a school.
Kids also make decisions to go to community college sometimes not knowing all of the pros and cons of two-year versus four-year colleges.
"It's not that four-year college is better than two-year college," said Coulter. "It's about maximizing opportunities for students. They can always apply to a two-year college, but the window to apply to a four-year college closes at a certain time each year. If students don't apply by then, they've lost the chance entirely."
Finally, many students don't apply to four-year colleges because they are unaware they can obtain a fee waiver to remove the cost of applying.
The resulting guide Coulter drafted — and that Graphic Arts Technician Albert Hernandez designed — is an attractive, cost-effective way for SDCOE to give students what Coulter calls "the most basic thing every kid should have."
"So much of the work we do at SDCOE is with adults. This project addresses the need and urgency many of us feel to do more to affect the outcome for kids in a direct way," he said.
Students were involved in every aspect of the project.
"I sat down with lots of kids and talked to them about these things and showed them information I wanted to put into the guide," said Coulter. "Most of them were very surprised that they could apply to college for free. They'd heard something about it, but not in a systematic way. And they gave me a lot of feedback on how the guide should look and the key points we should put in there so high school students would use it."
The guide made its debut last month as part of a pilot project with the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD). Counselors at each SUHSD school are receiving the guide for distribution to students who are from low-income families and have a grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Counselors will hand the documents to students personally, making a connection so students understand the importance of the guide and the information inside.
Addressing these myths goes to the heart of SDCOE's board goals and mission of inspiring and leading innovation in education, Coulter said.
"Getting more students enrolled in post-secondary options is a huge equity issue. These are kids who have been historically marginalized. We have to get them into the educational institutions that will serve them the best."