Michigan's College Access Blog

College Lingo: How we define "college" impacts our community culture

Collective Impact Spotlight

Communication is all around us and has been at the core of how humans interact since the beginning of time. The words and images we choose to define college and communicate its importance matter.

I repeat. The words we choose matter.

Too often we conflate the word "college" with "university" and through this process we alienate those that are in fact college-bound. A postsecondary educational program that results in a valuable credential is precisely the definition of "college." Students that pursue education beyond high school are going to college -- whether they are pursuing an engineering degree from Michigan State University or an aviation certificate from Northwestern Michigan College.

Spokane Public Schools in Spokane County, Washington took on the task of redefining "college" by launching their T-2-4 campaign. Most recently they released a music video to help educate the community through song. It's a fun way to reinforce how Spokane defines "college" and celebrate all choices.

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Rap group Level Ground tackles the concept of T-2-4. The song elevates Spokane Public Schools' dedication to preparing students to successfully move to and through some form of higher education, whether it's technical, 2-year or 4-year.

Are you ready? Then let's get in and make it through. I'm going to a T-2-4 (Technical, two-year, 4-year or the Military)


MCAN's staff and board have engaged in a similar process. We don't have a fun music video (although the ideas are turning in our heads...) but we do have a strong vision and values statement. About two years ago our board and staff met at great length and discussed what we mean when we say "college." We were very careful and thoughtful when crafting our values statements. It's not a coincidence that the first value statement we discussed and now list defines the term "college".

  • College is postsecondary education: MCAN uses the term "college" to refer to the attainment of valuable postsecondary credentials beyond high school, including professional/technical certificates and academic degrees.
  • College is a necessity: Postsecondary education is a prerequisite to success in a knowledge-based economy. Everyone must pursue and complete a postsecondary credential or degree beyond high school.
  • College is for everyone: The postsecondary education attainment rates among low-income students and students of color are significantly lower than those of other students. MCAN is committed to closing these gaps.
  • College is a public good: Postsecondary educational opportunity and attainment are critical to a just and equitable society, strong economy, and healthy communities.

Why not just say "postsecondary education?" MCAN embraces the term "college" to elevate quality postsecondary degrees and credentials. Also postsecondary education is a clunky 22-letter phrase that doesn't easily roll off your tongue. It sounds intimidating and isn't easily embraced by the general public.

It's critical Local College Access Networks take the time to discuss how they define college, but coming to an agreement is not the ultimate goal. The LCAN leadership needs to embrace the definition and regularly utilize the language when talking about college. Be the leading voice to redefine college in your community.

In our last Spotlight we shared how West Ottawa Public Schools has seen a dramatic shift in their college-going culture. At the core of that shift is the district embracing their mission and ensuring every student, parent and staff member understands the mission and what it means when someone says "college."

How is your community defining college and making sure your definition is widely heard and understood? Share your community definition on our LinkedIn page here.

For more information on how communication impacts your college access efforts head to the MCAN website to download our guidebook, Charting the Course: A community's guide for increasing educational attainment through the lens of collective impact, and our Communication Toolkit.

Lisa King headshot 2013Author: Lisa King, public relations consultant for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 17, 2014

Preparing for FAFSA Season

1403048887 budget invetigation - CopyWith the approach of the holidays, we're seeing college application season start to wrap up – but that doesn't mean we're off the hook! The new year brings another application season, this one around financial aid, because January 1 is when students can begin filling out the FAFSA. It is so important that seniors know exactly how to approach this important step. Rallying around college applications is fantastic, but if a student does not know how to pull down the financial resources needed to pay for college, it is likely they won't attend at all.

Although it has gotten easier to file than in previous years, filling out the FAFSA can still be an intimidating process, and trying to determine the best types of financial aid can definitely be confusing for students. Thankfully there are a variety of resources dedicated to helping students navigate this process, and to helping service providers guide their students through the FAFSA application and the larger conversations about financial literacy. To name a few:

  • Wells Fargo has done a series of webinars around this topic, all of which are recorded and available on our website.
  • MI College Goal brings together financial aid experts to guide students and families through every step of completing the FAFSA.
  • The FAFSA4caster helps students estimate their anticipated student aid
  • Khan Academy has an entire series of lessons dedicated to paying for college

College-Cash-Campaign-logo-for-webThese are just some of the available resources, which illustrates the significant need for assistance around FAFSA completion. This is why MCAN is excited to announce a new statewide initiative for 2015: the inaugural College Cash Campaign that will run from February 1 to April 30. The goal of the Michigan College Cash Campaign is to encourage a school-wide rally around FAFSA completion as part of the suite of statewide initiatives that helps students navigate the college-going process during their senior year. We are asking schools who sign up as host sites to commit to three things:

  1. Set a big goal around FAFSA completion and measure and celebrate progress toward this goal in a school-wide FAFSA campaign
  2. Participate in name-by-name FAFSA lookups
  3. Submit a video and application to the First Lady's FAFSA Completion Challenge for an opportunity to host Michelle Obama as their school's commencement speaker

In return for these commitments, MCAN will provide TA and support around the FAFSA form including a 3 hours in-depth FAFSA training provided by national college affordability training experts uAspire on January 29th, 2015 in Lansing, Michigan, access to a variety of resources including a best practices listesrv and name-by-name FAFSA completion data, and mini-grants to schools who perform especially well in their campaigns. For more information or to sign up as a host site visit the College Cash Campaign web page.

We are so excited to see how this campaign plays out in our schools! Some bold goals will be set in the next few weeks but I know from working closely with many of our Michigan high schools that students, staff, and administration will rise to the challenge and tackle the FAFSA head on.

Christ Taylor headshot 2013Author: Christi Taylor, director of statewide initiatives and strategic partnership for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 15, 2014

Helping Students Find the Best Match and Fit

Getting students into college is only half the battle. We're often asked how to ensure students are persisting through college once they get in the door. Two important factors in college retention and success are match (whether the college's academic rigor aligns with a student's academic achievement) and fit (how a college aligns with a student's social, financial, and academic needs). Making sure students are correctly matched to the colleges they want to attend is crucial to their ultimate success. For example, low-income students often select colleges whose average GPA and ACT score are well under their academic capabilities; when this happens, these students are less likely to graduate despite being "overqualified." It is equally important to ensure students (especially at-risk students) are entering colleges at which they have a support system, including a community of like-minded students, majors and class sizes that fit their learning needs, and extra-curricular opportunities that keep them involved and engaged.

Thankfully, MCAN can point to our partners and statewide initiatives for a variety of best practices and high-quality resources that direct service providers can use to help their students navigate match and fit. For one, Michigan College Application Week allows for an entire week (or more) dedicated to helping students research and apply to college. Students can spend the weeks leading up to Michigan College Application Weekdiving into the ins and outs of different colleges using the resources discussed below. After they've done their research, why not have students apply to not one college, but three: a match school, a reach school, and a "safety" school that each meet the student's match and fit criteria?

 College Greenlight logo
 we are the independents
 DDI Logo

FSM New 4-19-13

Even though College Application Week has wrapped up for 2014, there are resources available year-round to help with this process. The Michigan College Access Portal is a free one-stop-shop for planning for college, and includes a college search feature to help students (starting as early as 7th grade) choose which schools best meet their needs based on several characteristics including Academics & Scores, Size & Environment, Sports & Activities, Cost of Attendance, and Majors. MichiganCAP also includes a Paying for College section that helps a student determine the anticipated costs associated with each college on their list. Similary, College Greenlight offers student reviews of colleges (like Yelp!), a match and fit meter, and customized college lists based on student profiles.

The Michigan Colleges Alliance just launched a new outreach campaign called We Are the Independents, dedicated to informing students of their options when it comes to Michigan's independent liberal arts colleges, many of which are great social and financial fits for students. This campaign is great because, like in our example above, many low-income or first-generation students tend to view these colleges as too elite or too expensive. Messaging such as that in their Fact or Fiction section aims to change these perceptions.

Additionally, MCAN works with partners like the Developmental Disabilities Institute at Wayne State University and Fostering Success Michigan to promote the available college access resources for students with disabilities and students in foster care.

We're always looking for more resources to help students demystify match and fit! What are you using to talk about match and fit with your students?


Christ Taylor headshot 2013

Author: Christi Taylor, director of statewide initiatives for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 9, 2014

School District Embraces a College-Going Culture

District Spotlight: West Ottawa Public Schools

Most of our Spotlights take a close look at a Local College Access Network, but this week we're shining the light on a school district: West Ottawa Public Schools. Their talented staff embraces a college-going culture and regularly takes MCAN initiatives and opportunities to a new level for the betterment of their students and the community.

From College Application Week to College Decision Day. From investment in postsecondary planning training and hiring a college advisor to utilization of the online transcript process. West Ottawa has streamlined their college-going process through a dedicated, all-hands-on-deck approach.

How has this level of engagement been possible? Everyone, from the district superintendent to the building level staff, believes in the district-wide mission of preparing all students to be college, career and life ready. The district is also deliberate in defining the term "college" so students from early on understand it's more than a bachelor's degree. Everything West Ottawa does is connected to their mission.


West Ottawa counselors receive Postsecondary Planning
Training Course completion certificates

"Receiving the postsecondary planning training was essential, " said Tania Dozeman, West Ottawa High School counselor. Five counselors from West Ottawa Public Schools completed MCAN's Postsecondary Planning Training Course in June 2014. "It's common for a counselor to learn about college advising in the trenches once they've landed a job since job duties and traditional training don't match up. Gaining this knowledge has helped with the excitement of counseling staff." In addition to providing postsecondary planning training opportunities for current counselors, West Ottawa has invested in hosting a College Advising Corps member since 2011.

What has this focus and engagement done for counselors? It means counselors and the college adviser are spending less time on instruction for the steps to college with students and parents and more time exploring the best match and fit because students are hearing the message sooner and from more individuals than their counselor. Teachers, coaches, office staff are all talking about college. Students know what is expected of them and they understand the college-going language.

"Students are coming to us willingly with more, well-defined questions about the college-going process," said Mitch Veldkamp, West Ottawa High School counselor. "Before there was more pulling and proding from the counselors."

This year, 90% of seniors completed an application by end conclusion of Michigan's College Application Week. It was an easy accomplishment because their seniors were ready and knew what was expected from them after watching three previous senior classes participate. College Application Week has grown so much and is embraced by all that their middle school participated for the first time this year.

"Initiatives like College Application Week and College Decision Day are fun culture-building programs that all high schools should participate in," said Todd Tulgestke, West Ottawa principal. "However, if it's not important to your building leadership, it will be really hard to pull off. Everyone needs to be committed to creating a college-going culture."

To learn more about West Ottawa Public Schools visit www.westottawa.net/. We also encourage you to check out some of the creative ways that West Ottawa is engaging students through Twitter (@WestOttawaHS and @GOWO_College).

 College Is WOstudents

West Ottawa High School students share what "College is..." to them.

Lisa King headshot 2013Author: Lisa King, public relations consultant for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 3, 2014

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