Tips for Outreach to Area High Schools

Image shows a lecture hall crowded with students

Colleges frequently pursue partnerships with local high schools to improve college preparation and build a stronger pipeline for first-generation students, but these are often focused just on providing brief sessions either at the high school or on the college campus. Really effective partnerships involve more than just a quick one-and-done workshop.

We contacted Mary Ontiveros, vice president for diversity at Colorado State University, to share lessons learned from the success of CSU’s Alliance Partnership Program and specific tips for colleges and universities looking to work in tandem with area high schools.

More than Just Your Agenda: It’s About Addressing the Schools’ Needs

“Don’t go in with a plan. Go in to listen. Find out what’s causing the problem, what barriers are keeping more first-generation students from attending college. Is it money? Is it lack of resources at the high school to provide sufficient counselors? Is it difficulty in getting parents involved? Is it concern over the rigor of the school’s classes and the level of college preparation? Does the school need multicultural training for their staff and instructors to help them better relate to a certain demographic? Find out what that school’s needs are. Then formulate your plan in response.”
Mary Ontiveros, Colorado State U

“Realize that different schools will have different needs and a different culture,” Ontiveros comments. “Let them know what you can do and what resources you can provide, but then ask them what’s relevant to their needs and their obstacles.”

In reaching out to area high schools, Ontiveros also recommends:

  • Setting a goal of not simply getting more students enrolled in your institution but of getting more of that school’s students going to college; make the commitment that regardless of a student’s top choice of institution, your staff will be available to assist students from the partner school who have inquiries about how to apply for admission or financial aid
  • Setting the expectation that you don’t intend to do the high school’s work, but that you intend to provide consultation and advice, and share resources (and will follow through)
  • Once you have identified the barriers the school faces in sending more first-generation students to college, address the barriers one at a time; set specific, measurable objectives and evaluate progress

“What worked well when we established partnerships with our Alliance schools,” Ontiveros adds, “is that we went there listening to what they had to say, and then we responded. They, too, respond, by sending parents our way to events on our campus, by providing names of teachers to participate in summer programs.”

More than Just an Hour: Making the Most of an Outreach Workshop

Ask the school principal to give you access to their freshmen not just for an hour but for a day (for example, offer six sessions starting at 8 a.m.). Then craft a workshop around specific, targeted objectives — for example, relaying the message of the importance of going to college, and helping the students remove barriers to applying. A workshop could include:

  • A session where students learn and practice what is needed in a college admissions essay
  • A session where students work on their FAFSA application
  • A session on the residence hall (one creative way to do this, Ontiveros suggests, is to take some of your students to the site and set up a mock dorm room; show and tell what dorm life is like, discuss the amenities and the community, and address questions such as what to do if you don’t like your roommate)

“Throughout the day,” Ontiveros advises, “relay the message, in every way that you can, that these ninth-graders’ future begins today. Starting today, their grades count toward their college prospects and their career. If you want to get into Harvard, that effort starts today. Let them hear about the importance of college from their counselors and from your staff and students. End with an assembly and door prizes.” Tailor the message to address the specific barriers felt by that group of students at that school.

Another Example

Alabama A&M University and The Hill Project
Alabama A&M University has recently taken an additional approach — inviting students from local Butler High School to attend a workshop at the university. Besides attending sessions on admissions and financial aid, the Butler High School freshmen sign a contract to stay in school and make good grades. Here is some recent media coverage with more details about the program.

Ontiveros recommends including more than just sessions on admissions, financial aid, and campus life. Reach out to your faculty and invite them to give guest lectures during the event. Advise them to give the lectures just as they would in their own classroom, and include faculty representatives from several different disciplines. “Make sure to prep your faculty about why this program is important and convey the program’s core message to them. They will often get excited about being a part of the program and communicating that message.”

Then, in the afternoon, invite your president to give an assembly to the students. Again, the core message should be “Go to college.”

Finally, once you have completed a workshop, share that experience with other key schools and invite them to host workshops as well.

More than Just a Workshop: It’s All About the Follow-up

“Make sure you are connecting those schools and their counselors with point people and key resources — don’t make them wade through the university bureaucracy. You need to get them immediately connected with the specific people at your institution who are empowered to assist them.”
Mary Ontiveros, Colorado State U

Ensure that the “point person” you assign to that school is ready to route inquiries to other offices on campus efficiently. If one of your partner schools says that they need multicultural training for their staff, connect them with your multicultural services office. If they voice a concern about their students’ level of confidence in their ability to attend college, connect them with your enrollment manager. If they say they need their students to get a sense for what college life entails outside of the classroom, connect them with residence life or your athletics department — consider offering a tour of your residence facilities or tickets to a campus game.

“Above all,” Ontiveros cautions, “respond and follow through. Don’t make or imply promises you can’t keep. Too often university representatives will visit a school with great intentions and promise the world — you have to understand that school’s needs and establish a plan for following up.”

Ontiveros recommends establishing a formal working group to meet regularly, plan what commitments to make, and assess how the university can leverage its resources to meet the high schools’ needs and make specific, measurable steps toward growing the first-generation student pipeline. Include your director of admissions, your director of financial aid, and the officer responsible for your campus’s diversity initiatives.

Next, plan fall and spring on-site meetings with your partner schools. Whether these are hosted at your campus or at one of the partner high schools, Ontiveros advises striving to include school principals, counselors, participating teachers, and parents.