Giving parents access to college admissions

P1013335 Is the college admission process a family affair? Dalina Castellanos’ piece entitled “Help on the road to higher education,” suggests that it is.  In this brief piece, Castellanos discusses a 3-year-old parent education program run by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools that is designed to provide low-income and immigrant parents with the knowledge and support necessary to lead their children through the complicated landscape of the college admission process and beyond.  “Parent College,” as it is called, is described as “an unusual education effort” for such families that offers “several years” of Saturday workshops on such things as college admissions requirements, financial aid, and the particulars of college life, as well as campus tours and visits. As a developmental psychologist, I believe the movement to college to be a pivotal (yet certainly not inevitable) transition for youth in an increasingly globalized, technological world.  On the one hand, I agree that such targeted outreach efforts and programs to assist parents who are not themselves college educated in supporting their youth in this endeavor have great merit; indeed, this transition is both embedded in and exerts an influence on the entire family system, not just the individual child.  Further, on any occasion where one must enter unfamiliar territory, it is most often both prudent, helpful, and necessary if the requisite knowledge, behaviors, and “codes” for success in that context are explicitly pointed out and taught to those who do not possess them.  For parents and families who are unfamiliar with the college experience, this program holds many potential benefits, and can be a valuable resource in the college access process for youth.

“Both the larger academic literature and my own research with immigrant families attests to the fact that immigrant parents care deeply about their children’s education, and in fact, often possess a more urgent focus on their children acquiring formal education as a way of improving their future opportunities than do native born families.”

However, I also believe that individuals leading programs such as the one featured here must consistently and honestly interrogate the assumptions that might surround their intentions to “help” (note that this is the first word in the article title), lest paternalistic assumptions of “who knows best” lead to strategies and solutions that are not actually grounded in the lived realities of the parents enrolled in the program.  Rather, I argue here that for programs such as Parent College to be ecologically valid tools for educating and empowering the families of first-generation college students, they must avoid simplistic, scripted curricula that posit a set of “universal” behaviors, cultural beliefs, and attitudes that are more reflective of the middle and more affluent classes’ experience with the college transition.  Instead, such programs must contain sufficient “open” space for parents to integrate necessary, new information into their own cultural, educational, and family circumstances in contextually relevant ways, as well as regular opportunities and time to discover areas of shared expertise on issues such as parenting, experiences with educational institutions, etc.  In this way, these programs can realize their potential for supporting and guiding historically marginalized families through this important transition in ways that are authentic, sensitive, and respectful.

Parent College Parents and students from Parent College tour UC Irvine.
Photo: Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times

One of the first misconceptions that the article addresses is that low-income and immigrant parents (who may or may not be from the same group) don’t care about their child’s education.  The article features the story of Maria Martinez, an immigrant mother of Mexican descent who herself had no formal education, yet increasingly desires this for her youngest children as they grow up in the U.S.  Both the larger academic literature and my own research with immigrant families attests to the fact that immigrant parents care deeply about their children’s education, and in fact, often possess a more urgent focus on their children acquiring formal education as a way of improving their future opportunities than do native born families.  In the article here, Ms. Martinez notes that supporting higher education “is the only inheritance we can leave our children.”  Interestingly, in my own work with a diverse group of Latino parents in the Boston area, a young mother who had recently immigrated from the Dominican Republic echoed this sentiment almost verbatim, noting that “for me, [formal] education is the inheritance that you give to your children” (see article in spring/summer 2013 edition of The School Community Journal ).  Immigrant parents fervently want better for their children than they themselves had; while “better” is undoubtedly contextual, one of the ways it is often defined by recent immigrant parents is through formal education.

In the article, Ms. Martinez goes on to describe some of the particulars of the program, highlighting a common tension she often encounters with other Latino parents:  their fears of “letting their child go to college.”  This might be viewed as an example of how cultural strengths in one context can actually become weaknesses in another.  As implied here and consistent with the literature, many Latino families (as well as other immigrant and/or low income families) operate within an interdependent framework that stresses physical and psychological closeness with family, familial obligation, and an orientation toward others- characteristics that are protective and promote resilience when resources are scarce, for example.  The typical college experience is undoubtedly framed within an independent perspective- one that stresses individual separateness, self-reliance, and autonomy.  This shift in orientation can be a riveting one for parents as they confront the college transition process, as Ms. Martinez notes.

Hence, the opportunity the program offers for parents to connect, talk, and learn from each on issues such as the above is compelling, and I believe this is one of the most powerful potential benefits of programs such as Parent College.  If well designed, these programs can provide a space for parents and families to gain what sociologist James Coleman called social capital- collective benefits individuals accrue through their interactions and networks with others.  Parents often use this capital in the service of their children, in areas where they might feel less efficacious.  Again, my own research with a nationally representative sample of Latino families participating in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (see article in Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences , 2011, Volume 33) evidences the relevance of parents’ social capital; in examining factors associated with parents’ physical presence in schools, the number of other parents from their child’s classroom that they reported they knew well enough to talk to was the strongest individual predictor of their school involvement, even after controlling for other factors such as formal education and income.

“If well designed, these programs can provide a space for parents and families to gain what sociologist James Coleman called social capital- collective benefits individuals accrue through their interactions and networks with others.”

Of course, I need not defer only to my professional, researcher self to ponder the relevance of a program like Parent College for parents and students alike.  My own experience as a first-generation college student of working-class, Italian-American parents resonates with many of the experiences highlighted in the article.  My parents knew nothing of the college admissions process- I mostly relied on myself and my teachers and guidance counselors.  On campus tours with other prospective students and families, my parents remained wide-eyed and silent while other parents peppered our guides with what I thought to be perceptive questions (note:  my mother is rarely silent and often dominates most conversations with both family and friends).  And, I vividly remember the first time those interdependent “bonds” (also often characteristic of Italian families) felt too tight:  as we settled into my dorm room, my mother commented, “oh well, anything you forgot you can get next weekend- because you’ll be coming home on the weekends anyway.”  When I tentatively (and guiltily) suggested that no, I might not come home every weekend, I remember the panic that spread over my mom’s face- panic that she quickly tried to hide and overcome as she struggled not to burden me with her angst.  I argue here that although these feelings might be characteristic of all parents in this situation, it may well be more acute for parents who are unfamiliar with the college experience.

As the article notes, these parents are themselves experiencing this new environment as a “strange, faraway land.”  And, to add another layer of complexity, while the “land” my parents were leaving me in may have been “strange” in many respects, it was also predominantly white, as we were.  Although ethnic minority enrollment in postsecondary institutions is historically high, they (ethnic minority students) are far from the majority on most college campuses in the U.S.  How much more “strange” and “faraway” might this land be for a family who has lived for years in their own ethnic enclave?  Thus, programs like Parent College can provide the space for ethnic minority parents to confront and process these fears, and to come to new understandings by sharing experiences, cultural resources, and strategies together.

So how do we design parent programs that are not fundamentally deficit-oriented, but effectively balance the acquisition of new information with the strengths, knowledge, and insights parents already have?  A key part of the answer, I believe, lies with parents themselves, whose voices must be at the center of such programs.  Although there is a plethora of new, perhaps “standardized” information that will obviously need to be shared with first-generation families embarking on the college transition, there should be ample space and time for the complexities of the experience as it exists in the lives of the participants to be teased out and addressed in contextually relevant ways.  I offer a final, illustrative example.  My stepdaughter will embark upon the college application process in the next few years.  Although her transition to college and campus life will be an emotional upheaval for my husband and I, as upper-middle class, college-educated professionals we will have little difficulty conceptualizing this experience as “her time,” and will fully support her efforts to focus exclusively on her own experiences there.  Would this stance be adaptive for the majority of families Parent College seeks to recruit?  Indeed, it may be for some, as it appeared to be for Ms. Martinez, but research and my own experience as a Wheelock College professor suggest that many first-generation, immigrant, and/or students from low-income backgrounds simply cannot clearly separate the boundaries between college and home life.  These students may have to continue to work or to maintain a physical presence and responsibilities in their homes and/or communities.  Families who experience these situations can share ideas and strategies for supporting their children as they navigate these issues, and more.  In my brief online research on Parent College, it does indeed seem to be a program where conversations like this can, and do happen, and that parents have a strong, legitimate presence.  Similar programs should follow suit, so that “help” for parents embarking on the college transition isn’t simply delivered by “experts,” but offered and shared among and between parents themselves.

Tina Durand is an Associate Professor of Human Development at Wheelock College. She has worked in both rural and suburban public schools as a classroom teacher and Early Childhood Specialist. Her research interests regard ecological factors associated with the early adaptation and success of Latino children and families in schools, ethnic and class-based differences in parental involvement in children’s learning, and children living in poverty. She is also interested in cultural interpretations of human development, and issues of race and class in child and family studies.