How Can Communities Develop Students’ Aspirations for College?

October 2015

Cross-sector partnerships are essential to helping all students prepare for college. As communities work together to ensure that all students are ready to succeed in college, they may have myriad questions about how best to help different student populations navigate the college pathway: How can communities work to foster students’ postsecondary aspirations at a young age? How can they ensure that all students have access to college-readiness curriculum? What kinds of academic and social supports should be made available outside of the classroom to help students, including adult learners, stay on track to postsecondary success? The answers to such questions inform how we design interventions to improve student outcomes and continuously measure progress.

But cross-sector partnerships and academic system alignment can be difficult to manage and maintain unless communities have clear guidance, objectives, and strategies. Community partners must work together to assess what kinds of programming and initiatives work best for the various student populations within their communities. In other words, what works for one student population, may not necessarily work for another, as each student faces unique circumstances. In an effort to support community-based collaborations on college-readiness among key sectors—education, business, policy, and nonprofit and community organizations—the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has developed this tactical guidebook with support from Lumina Foundation. The guidebook explains how some communities within the Community Partnership for Attainment (CPA) network overcame obstacles; these communities and already use cross-sector partnerships effectively to create greater academic alignment and increase college-readiness for underserved students.

We hope you will use this guidebook to learn more about different practices and tools that communities are using to improve academic system alignment and support college-readiness for all students, and how you could potentially adopt these practices and tools in your own communities. Our guidebook’s opening infographic outlines seven points along The Pathway to College: (1) Develop Students’ Aspirations for College; (2) Offer High-Quality College-Readiness Curriculum; (3) Deliver Learning Outside the Classroom; (4) Increase Financial Awareness and Readiness for College; (5) Guide Students Through the College Admissions Process; (6) Create On-Ramps to Get Back on the College Track; and (7) Ease the Transition to College. Each chapter then takes a deep dive into these points and includes: interviews* with community leaders about their community partnership strategies and practices; checklists, templates, budget summaries, calendars, and protocols showcasing the variety of tools already in use; and additional resources, with examples of other tools and more information on their implementation.

Supported by Lumina Foundation

* Please note that all interviews are summaries of conversations and not verbatim records.


Postsecondary aspirations need to be nurtured early on, surrounding students—as well as their teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents—in a college-going culture that raises college expectations for all students. Institutions of higher education, schools, community-based organizations, and other community sectors play an important role in building this supportive environment that enables all students to think of college as a realistic part of their futures.

Community events, workshops, and online tools are examples of programming that can be implemented to build a college-going culture. Greater exposure to different postsecondary pathways can help students identify their education and career options, and opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom can help students learn about academic planning, career exploration, college affordability, and personal enrichment.

Educators and service providers must think about how they can best support students who embark on the pathway to college at later points as well. After being out of school for years, adult students may feel particularly disconnected from academic pathways, but community leaders can provide adequate supports that help them aspire to college as well as manage work and family responsibilities. Below are a few examples of supports that can help myriad students develop college aspirations.

College Access Programs: Does your community want to offer programs that bring students and their families together to focus on preparing for college? These programs help students understand what is required for college at an early age so that they see college as a real possibility. Many programs specifically target underserved populations, such as first-generation students and adult learners, to ensure that their distinct needs are met. It is important to include families within these programs, as they are a key component to fostering students’ education and career aspirations.

College Coaches: Does your community want to connect students with individuals who can provide guidance and support throughout the college preparation process? Having access to coaches with college-going experience allows students to establish one-on-one relationships with those who can serve as role models, monitor their progress, listen to their challenges, and advise them.

Peer Mentors: Does your community want to show students that others from similar backgrounds have successfully navigated college? Peer mentors who share similar backgrounds with students understand the unique challenges they face. For underserved students especially, peer mentors serve as role models, helping students to see that others before them have successfully gone through the college application process.

Education and Career Exploration Opportunities: Does your community want to help students understand how their postsecondary plans connect to future career aspirations? Helping students identify academic and career interests—in order to create plans that align with those goals—lets students visualize themselves in specific postsecondary pathways and careers. Business community partners can help students understand their options through career fairs and internship opportunities. There are also online software programs that allow students to explore their interests, learn about possible careers, and find information on education and training. Adult learners can also use such software to search work options, research employers, network for opportunities, write résumés and cover letters, and prepare for interviews.

This section of the guidebook features an interview with the director of the Westside Pathways Project, in Salt Lake City, Utah. In it, she explains how their university–school partnership begins supporting students as early as kindergarten through classroom mentoring, on-campus activities, and strong parental engagement. This chapter also includes different tools to demonstrate the various ways communities can build students’ aspirations, such as a handout for mentors working with middle school students, and the College Success Board Game. This chapter ends with a list of additional resources, where you can find more information on helping students develop postsecondary aspirations.

Westside Pathways Project, Salt Lake City, Utah: Building College Awareness and Aspirations Among Elementary School Students

  • Dr. Dolores Delgado Bernal, Professor of Education, Culture, & Society, University of Utah; Co-Director and Co-Founder, Westside Pathways Project

IHEP spoke to Dr. Dolores Delgado Bernal from the University of Utah to learn about the merger between two college access programs that established the Westside Pathways Project. Delgado Bernal describes the K–12 postsecondary partnership that established the Adelante mentorship program for elementary school students, the expansion of the program to include middle schools, and the 2013 merger with the Mestizo Arts and Activism program to establish a cohesive system of supports to increase college awareness and college aspirations among low-income, minority students in Salt Lake City. The interview relates innovative practices in building, growing, and sustaining partnership programs between postsecondary institutions and K–12 systems to develop a K–16 pipeline and increase college access for underserved students.


IHEP: What is the Westside Pathways Project, and what are the program’s overall goals in your community?

The Westside Pathways Project resulted from the merger of the Adelante program for elementary students; the Activists, Leaders, and Scholars (ALAS) for middle school students; and the Mestizo Arts and Activism of Salt Lake City (SLC; where Jackson Elementary school is located). The partnership communities are located on the west side of SLC, which is home to a large Latino population as well as other students of color. Our fundamental goal was to develop a college-going culture for all students, beginning in kindergarten. We knew that in order to do this, we would have to change community and teacher expectations for students, our methods for communicating about college with students, and the supports we provide to students.

Today, the Adelante program places freshman undergraduate mentors from the University of Utah in Jackson Elementary School and Bryant Middle School, and provides elementary and middle school students with opportunities to visit local colleges and universities. The Mestizo Arts and Activism program (MAA) has graduate students from the university working with undergraduate student mentors, who then work with high school students to develop and conduct research projects on issues of particular importance to their communities. The same undergraduate mentors also provide guidance to mentees on college preparation and application. Together, these programs provide support to students throughout the K–16 pipeline.

IHEP: What was the impetus for developing the Adelante program, and what are its main components?

The University of Utah created an office to support community partnerships called University Neighborhood Partners, which then completed a large needs assessment of the west side of SLC—a racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse community.

This is our community, this is our area of expertise, and, oh, here’s this mini-grant [approximately $5,000] to start up a partnership.

In 2005, based on the findings of the needs assessment, the University Neighborhood Partners office put out a request for proposals for mini-grants to develop community partnership programming that would create educational pathways. As faculty in the College of Education at the University of Utah, Dr. Enrique Alemán, Dr. Octavio Villalpando, and I thought, “This is our community, this is our area of expertise, and, oh, here’s this mini-grant [approximately $5,000] to start up a partnership.” We gauged interest by speaking with the principal of Jackson Elementary School, and then we applied for the grant and moved forward.

There are five components to the Adelante program: university mentoring, university visits, cultural and academic enrichment, parent and teacher engagement, and research for change. The first two components involve placing freshmen undergraduate students of color in elementary schools to mentor elementary students for an entire academic year; these components also involve bringing the students to the university—either for campus visits or for a weeklong science camp or law camp—starting in their kindergarten year.

The cultural and academic enrichment’s third component includes an oral history project and after-school programming. The oral history project gives students an opportunity to learn about their cultural backgrounds and to share this information with classmates and teachers.

A priority for our program has always been parent engagement, part of the fourth component. We actively engage parents through family advocacy weekend workshops and continually seek feedback to ensure that we continue to improve the program by addressing priority issues for parents and the local community. We assisted parents with starting their own organization, called Padres en Acción (Parents in Action), to become stronger advocates. Engaging teachers is also part of the fourth component, and we have provided professional development and strategies for teachers and parents to engage with each other. The last component, research for change, entails constantly thinking about how to connect university research with the school system in order to identify what’s working and what is not working for the community, and to take action that leads to change.

IHEP: Why did the Adelante program want to merge with the Mestizo Arts and Activism program?

The Mestizo Arts and Activism program originated as a youth participatory action research program in which high school students worked with undergraduates to research community issues and to use their findings to affect change. Three years ago, Dr. Enrique Alemán and I took over advisory responsibilities for the program and merged the youth participatory action research program work with college readiness mentoring. This means that high school students who participate in the MAA program now receive guidance from graduate or undergraduate mentors on both their research projects and specifically on college preparation and application, providing a more robust mentoring role and seamless college-preparation pipeline for elementary and secondary students.


IHEP: Why did you choose to partner with Jackson Elementary School in particular?

Jackson Elementary had a Spanish dual-immersion program that aimed to develop bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural students. We (my family and Dr. Alemán’s family) had moved into that community and wanted our children to go to a bilingual school. This is how we became aware of the school and its dual-immersion programming. We thought our idea for the Adelante program could be particularly compatible with the school’s model.

IHEP: How did you establish a partnership with Jackson Elementary School?

Prior to applying for the grant, we reached out to the principal of Jackson Elementary to begin a community partnership program. This way, the principal was at the table from the beginning. Since our plan was to start small (two kindergarten classrooms) and grow from there, our next step was to reach out to the teachers who would be teaching those classes to ensure that they were also at the table. One challenge we encountered was that not all principals and educators shared the same vision or social justice orientation, though they expressed support for the program. Given that we’ve gone through four principals in the span of a decade, another challenge has been to maintain the support of different principals throughout turnover.

IHEP: How did the partnership grow over time?

When we started the partnership, we used a model of strategic growth. At the beginning, we only worked with two Spanish- immersion kindergarten classrooms at Jackson Elementary; we then added a grade every year. As we were moving forward, we quickly realized that we needed to have teachers on board. By the end of the first year, we met with the first grade teachers and said, “Here’s what we’ve been doing. How do you want to change it?” When the first group of kindergarteners moved up to first grade, we brought in the new kindergarten class and their parents. So, every year, we would bring the next group of teachers and the new kindergarten families to the table to establish co-ownership and buy-in. Today, we’re working with all elementary school grades, both dual immersion and non-dual immersion. 

We didn’t want to lose all the students from Jackson Elementary when they moved onto Bryant Middle School in seventh grade. When the first cohort of Adelante students was in fifth grade, we started talking to the principal at Bryant, who was very interested in the Adelante program. In the first year, Bryant Middle School offered the cohort of students from the Adelante program a special advising class as part of their school day. However, since Bryant Middle School already had programming in place, which focused on college awareness and facilitating college visits, we ultimately decided to work closely with the program coordinator at the middle school in order to connect students to programs that were already in place. 

IHEP: Who were your partners from the University of Utah?

The director of the University Neighborhood Partners office was very supportive and worked closely with the president of the University of Utah. Having the support of the director proved to be very important to maintaining support for and awareness of the program at the institution level.

As faculty in the College of Education, we made a concerted effort to engage other faculty around the idea that this was not just community service—not just outreach—but that it involved an engaged research component.

Initially, the College of Education did not play a significant leadership role other than housing the program. As faculty in the College of Education, we made a concerted effort to engage other faculty around the idea that this was not just community service— not just outreach—but that it involved an engaged research component. As the program continued to expand and awareness increased, the College of Education took on a larger role.

Over the years, our departments have been able to fund the salary for some of our graduate research assistants, and this has strengthened our partnership because those assistants have been key to this partnership and program’s success. Over the past 10 years, we have funded 12 graduate research assistants, who have been bilingual and bicultural. Most of them are first- generation college students from communities similar to those we’re working in. To date, more than 30 additional graduate students, mostly from the College of Education, have been involved in different capacities in the Westside Pathways Project.


IHEP: Can you describe the mentoring model employed by the Adelante program?

When we first started the mentoring program, we partnered with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), a Chicano student organization active on many campuses.

MEChA assisted us in recruiting undergraduate volunteers and in placing them in elementary school classrooms. As long as the mentors were working with the students directly, we allowed the elementary school teachers to have full autonomy with regard to how they worked with the student volunteers. Elementary school teachers were provided with professional development on working with undergraduate mentors and, over time, began to develop and share their own best practices.

The program was strictly voluntary at first; I think we had about 15 students the first year. During the third year, the vice president for equity and diversity at the University of Utah initiated the Diversity Scholars Program, a cohort model to support freshman students of color. Dr. Alemán and I worked together to develop a course for first-year students of color in the Ethnic Studies Department that would fulfill scholarship requirements and provide students with service learning credit. For one hour a week, the undergraduate students serve as mentors with the same teachers and group of elementary school students for a full year. Mentors participating in the Ethnic Studies course are also required to reflect critically on their experiences for their class.

Today, we have anywhere between 90 and 100 undergraduate mentors. We now place mentors in the Adelante program, the middle school program, and the MAA high school program, in addition to other community sites. Hundreds of undergraduate students have volunteered or have completed their service learning at the university by mentoring students through Adelante.

IHEP: How did you establish and facilitate the university visits component of the program?

In the beginning, when we only had two kindergarten classes, both classes took three trips each semester to the university campus. Once we started working with the whole elementary school, students in first through fifth grades took one field trip per year, and kindergarten and sixth grade classes took two field trips per year. The coordination is intensive. For a couple of years, we had a designated staff person from the university working in community engagement. This person was given about five hours a week to work with us; however, during most of the years a graduate research assistant has coordinated visit planning. I think if universities can invest in a staff person to coordinate trips, it makes more sense, because graduate research assistants should be more focused on doing research.

We have been particularly successful with science departments. Many science grants require outreach to underserved communities, but the scientists applying for these grants are not as familiar with how to incorporate the community outreach aspect into their work.

To maintain the connection between school visits and classroom content, we worked with numerous departments and units, such as the medical school; law school; science, engineering, and dance departments; as well as students groups including MEChA, student government, and campus newspapers. We’ve kept a roster of faculty and staff contacts in each department.

We have been particularly successful with science departments. Many science grants require outreach to underserved communities, but the scientists applying for these grants are not as familiar with how to incorporate the community outreach aspect into their work. So, we say, “Oh, we’ve got the kids for you. We’ve got the community. We’ll set it up. Do you have lab work to do age-appropriate science experiments?” If you have a faculty member who has these kind of grants or is doing this kind of work, that’s your key person. We come back to that person year after year.

IHEP: What other programming do the elementary school students participate in on campus?

For the first two years, we held a science camp during the summer, but it ultimately didn’t work because it was difficult to coordinate 

with teachers and graduate students outside of the school year. So we moved the camp to the spring and we started doing four- day camps, where the students come to campus during the school day—we both pick them up and drop them back off. There’s a theme for the week, and teachers can coordinate it with their core curriculum.

About five years after we started the Adelante program, the law school approached us and told us about something they had in place called Kids Court. They needed more participation, and we had the students, so we were able to incorporate Kids Court into our programming for fifth graders.

IHEP: How did you connect the college access components of the Adelante program to the MAA programs?

MAA was started by three faculty members, none of whom remain at the university. When the faculty left, the undergraduate and graduate student mentors wanted to continue the program and asked me and my colleague if we would be their advisors for the program. We agreed. When we moved into advising positions, the K–16 pipeline became more of a focus. We viewed this as an opportunity for us to support the continued funding and facilitation of the youth participatory action research program while expanding the programming to support students through the transition from high school to college.

The MAA work is really driven by the university students. The graduate research assistants work with them on the curriculum, research projects, college access programming, and undergraduate mentoring. To ensure adequate focus on college preparation while supporting high school students with their research projects, the undergraduate and graduate students designate specific days to focus on college preparation—writing personal statements, applying for scholarships, and turning in applications. Graduate students also maintain records on the number of students applying for colleges, where they are applying, which scholarships are available, and what funding opportunities are available for undocumented students, etc.

IHEP: What resources have you needed in order to achieve all of this?

We always say the graduate students—their time, their dedication, and their commitment—are the heart and soul of the program. They are the reason we have been around for 10 years. At the same time, many doctoral students who come from out of state have said, “I would have never remained in this program nor graduated had I not had this community to support me.”

The major expense of the partnership work is funding the graduate research assistants in our department, who each receive a stipend of about $15,000 a year plus tuition waivers. Enrique and I have worked with different departments on campus to assist in funding these positions through university resources. For example, we have asked the Office of Student Outreach and University Neighborhood Partners to each pay $7,500 to cover the expenses for one graduate research assistant who is really helping to meet the goals of both of those units. Strategically identifying areas in which a graduate research assistant can provide support for multiple units is key.

Another big expense has been transportation. We’ve handled that in different ways over the 10 years. Sometimes, the district has actually picked up the tab for transportation. That would be ideal in any partnership. If you’re partnering with a school district, transportation support is one of the easier asks.

We also tap into the city’s small foundations and philanthropic organizations to fund this work. Most of our grants have been small—anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. Right now, we have a grant from the Office of the President at the University of Utah to fund us at $50,000/year, over three years, to continue the Westside Pathways Project.


IHEP: What outcomes indicate that this work is increasing college aspirations and college access among targeted students?

The students from the first kindergarten class are currently sophomores. From the beginning we knew that we would not be able to use college access as a measure of our success for quite some time, and that we would need to employ other measures. For this reason, we conducted hundreds of interviews with parents, teachers, and students. We conducted four rounds of interviews with our first cohort of students at the beginning and end of their kindergarten year, and repeated this process during their fourth grade and eighth grade years. We have also interviewed the mentors, both while they were mentoring and then later, about their experiences.

In our last interview with the first cohort, students were just getting ready to enter high school, and it was really powerful to hear them reflect back on their experiences. They felt comfortable with the idea of college, they understood that they had to think about what classes they wanted to eventually take in college, and they were beginning to think about postsecondary pathways to careers. It was amazing to hear future first-generation college students articulate their experience visiting college campuses and share their ideas, concerns, and plans to attend. Their biggest concerns were financial, but they expected to go to college.

The qualitative data from teacher surveys really speaks to the change in teacher expectations for students over time as well as to the concerted effort we have made to change those expectations and talk to teachers about the impact of setting expectations. The program has also provided teachers with a context and framework for discussing college with their students early on. We have heard elementary school teachers say, “I’ve always wanted my kids to go to college, but before this program, we never actually talked about it. Now we have a mechanism for beginning to speak about college regularly with our kindergarten class.”

The principal and vice principal at Bryant Middle School have told us, “We see a qualitative difference between the students that come from Jackson and the students who feed in from other schools.” There are two main feeder elementary schools representing very similar socio-economic and demographic populations. We plan to perform an analysis on the number of students from Jackson taking honors classes, and their general academic performance, compared with students from other feeder elementary schools.

Though the original cohort from the Adelante program has not yet graduated high school, 90 percent of students who participate in the MAA program go on to attend local two- and four-year colleges and universities.

IHEP: How has the community responded to the program?

Parents express that education has always been a priority, but they now feel empowered by this program to make that priority a reality. Now they feel they can go to the district and say, “This is an issue; this is a problem,” because they now understand much more about what it takes to go to college in this community, and they realize that they can affect change.

We have heard elementary school teachers say, 'I’ve always wanted my kids to go to college, but before this program, we never actually talked about it. Now we have a mechanism for beginning to speak about college regularly with our kindergarten class.'

Chapter 1 Download


Mentors Handout

This handout for middle school mentors is meant to advise them on how to best build students’ college aspirations early on.

Page length: 2

College Success Board Game

This is a template for a college success board game, with the overall objective of graduating. It was designed by Next Steps Academy at Independence Adult Center & National College Transition Network to build students aspirations, encourage self- assessment, and reinforce college knowledge and awareness.

Page length: ~6 (long because board game template is included)

Additional Resources

Creating a High School Culture of College-Going: The Case of Washington State Achievers (2008: Institute for Higher Education Policy)

This report studies integrated programs designed to address multiple barriers to college access through the Case of Washington State Achievers program. The study examines the effects of early college information, scholarships, and mentoring on college-going culture.

Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from Chicago (2009: Consortium on Chicago School Research)

This report draws on findings from a multi-year research project on Chicago Public Schools designed to identify determinants of students’ postsecondary success and levers for improvement, which may serve as a case study for other communities. It argues that high schools must shift from a focus on only building college aspirations, which are already high, to establishing a clear pathway for students to enroll and succeed in postsecondary education. This includes building college-going cultures in high schools to improve students’ academic performance and increasing the information and counseling students receive to access good-fit colleges and financial aid.

Eight Components of College and Career Readiness (2010: College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy)

Designed for K–12 practitioners, the website for the Eight Components of College and Career Readiness charts a comprehensive, systemic approach to school counseling that prepares all students, especially underserved students, for college and career success. The components aim to build and strengthen students’ aspirations, expand their social capital, provide them with enriching activities, foster rigorous academic preparation, encourage early college planning, and guide them and their families through the college admission and financial aid processes. The website also offers guides for elementary, middle, and high school counselors to effectively implement these components.

Latino Males: Improving College Access and Degree Completion–A New National Imperative (2012: American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education)

This brief discusses the most up-to-date research on Latino male students, identifies specific barriers faced by this population, and outlines promising practices to support this group. The brief provides guidance to administrators on constructing campus and academic programming, and community partnership engagement strategies to increase college access and success among Latino men.

Supporting Men of Color along the Educational Pipeline: Research and Practice (2013: National College Access Network, Institute for Higher Education Policy & Pathways to College Network)

Although men of color face many similar challenges in postsecondary education, they are not a monolithic group. Acknowledging the implications of these differences in designing program supports and/or policy interventions, this brief outlines research on men of color in terms of access to and success in postsecondary education. Specifically, the brief identifies successful pre-college programs, research, and/or policy initiatives designed to address these issues, and includes interviews with practitioners and researchers who work directly with these students.