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St. Rita’s Catholic School in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

The class of 2028 will, no doubt, have a maze of postsecondary options to help them unlock their dreams and ambitions.

Yet while the connection between education and aspiration is intuitive to many, it’s not necessarily so for children — particularly for those who come from low-income households or families with no college education.

Students from low-income families enroll in college (immediately after high school) at a rate 30 percentage points lower than that for students from high-income families — and that gap has persisted since 1990. And it’s not for lack of aspirations. The Educational Policy Improvement Center notes that 93 percent of middle-school students aspire to attend college, and yet only 44 percent of those students actually enroll. There is a gap between what students aspire to achieve and what they accomplish.

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From navigating a complicated college application process to figuring out how to pay for it, the idea of a college degree can be too unfamiliar and overwhelming for many families and students to grasp. Add to that the language and cultural barriers faced by some families. Is it any wonder that some students feel college isn’t for them?

”There is a gap between what students aspire to achieve and what they accomplish.”

Fortunately, parents, educators and community leaders dedicated to creating holistic environments for children can facilitate opportunities that foster the mindset that college is not only within reach, but achievable for any student with the desire to enroll after high school.

Ask children what they want to do when they grow up, and you’re sure to get responses — scientist, doctor, firefighter, teacher. But ask children how they will become these scientists, doctors, firefighters or teachers, and the answer may not be so immediate or clear.

Higher education is the key to becoming that doctor or teacher someday, and children can begin to understand that as early as elementary school, which is the time when they are most engaged in their schooling.

“What is college? Get that thought into their heads — even though they’re only 6 years old — and they can think about that until they’re in high school and the process becomes real,” says an elementary teacher in Cameron, North Carolina.

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In the early years, children begin to explore what makes them unique — they claim likes and dislikes, learn right from wrong and look to adults for affirmation that they’re no longer “babies.” They start to connect with the idea that, one day, they’ll be “grownups,” and they begin to make sense of what that means by observing and even mimicking the adults around them. In cases where parents didn’t go to college or college seems like an expensive venture only afforded to wealthier classmates and friends, a college education may appear to be a lofty, only-if-you’re-lucky experience.

Here’s where, and why, educators fill a crucial void in the lives and trajectories of their students. Elementary teachers are well-positioned to facilitate the type of self-discovery that will allow children to begin to make the connection between their interests, learning and life ambitions­­. This isn’t about asking students to narrow their interests or to choose a specific career path; it’s about nurturing and building aspirations. “I want them to know you are not in this alone,” an elementary counselor in Columbus, Mississippi, says.

Take students on field trips to see what the real world is like, but follow these up with conversations and activities that show children what it takes to get to the real world. “The smallest link makes it all understandable,” says an elementary educator in Aurora, Colorado. Want to be a scientist? Practice your math, and plan to take a lot of those classes in college. Or help students identify their interests and connect them to jobs: Like computer games? What if you created one? Or sold one? You can learn how in college.

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These connections not only help students to visualize the path from school to career, but also to harness their own interests and direction so they can define their future. “That’s what’s really powerful,” the Colorado educator added, “how they interpret it and make it their own, with their teacher’s guidance.”

Just as children might dream up ideas to be a doctor after reading Mercer Mayer’s When I Grow Up or to be a firefighter after a school field trip to a local firehouse, they should, too, envision themselves in college. Take children to campus — not so they can choose a university, but so that college becomes a familiar existence in their lives. Ask children about their goals, and talk about how college will help realize them. Through conversations, stories and activities, educators can make the idea of going to college as commonplace as the idea of going to grade school. And really, that’s how it ought to be.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Dr. Philip W.V. Hickman is superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District, Columbus, Mississippi.  

Stephen M. Smith is co-founder of Naviance and chief product officer at Hobsons for Hobsons and serves on the board of directors for the National College Access Network and College Possible.  

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