Who are the most important people in determining whether children will go to and through college? Teachers? Principals? Guidance counselors? College professors?
The fact of the matter is that all of these individuals are important for student success. They all play crucial roles in determining whether students get the opportunity they need to earn the college degree that employers look for when they’re hiring people for the best-paying and fastest-growing jobs and career paths.
But a critical, and sometimes unrecognized factor, is parents. At UNCF, the nation’s largest provider of scholarships to students of color, our research and 70-plus years of experience helping students go to college and graduate tells us that parents’ impact on children takes place all day, every day. It starts when they’re born, and it lasts a lifetime. They’ll represent the child at parent-teacher conferences. They will most likely contribute to paying the cost of college, and as our research shows, they support their children in multiple ways, from reviewing their tests scores to helping with homework on a regular basis.
And perhaps most important, we have learned through experience that, whether they went to college themselves or not, parents will have a great influence in shaping their children’s attitude toward post-secondary education.
I can’t overemphasize how important this attitude is. Parents who commit to college from the time their children are born right through high school graduation will live their lives differently, and so will their children. They will make sure that their children know their letters and numbers before starting school. They’ll insist that their children are placed in demanding courses all through school: algebra instead of general math, for example. They’ll gauge their children’s progress not just through report cards but also at in-depth parent-teacher conferences. They’ll start choosing a college that’s right for their children, starting in sophomore year of high school. And they’ll start saving for college when their children start kindergarten, to allow plenty of time for compound interest to turn small contributions into tidy nest eggs.
It’s a big responsibility for all parents. UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute’s 2012 report, Done to Us, Not With Us, shows that almost 90 percent of African American parents want their children to go to college. But getting them there, making sure that their pre-college education prepares them for college, is a special challenge for parents who, like many low- and moderate-income moms and dads, didn’t go to college themselves. What questions should you ask? How well are your children actually doing in school? How do you know what to look for? What do you say to teachers at parent-teacher conferences? If your child needs help, how do you make sure he or she gets it? Parents must feel empowered to ask these tough questions, but as our research shows, some schools do not create a welcoming environment for these parents. To maximize student success, the relationship between parents and schools must be strengthened and nurtured.
The good news is that help is available. There are resources that can assist in providing parents with more information. The Parent Checklist, created by the Department of Education in conjunction with UNCF, National PTA, National Council of La Raza and America Achieves, helps inform parents about key questions to ask to ensure their children are succeeding in school and are adequately prepared for college.
Learning Heroes also provides resources and information for parents from some of the nation’s most well-respected education organizations. The 2016 Super 5 is an interactive guide that provides parents with suggestions on how to support their children inside and outside the classroom. Some of the helpful Super 5 tips include finding easy ways to integrate learning into your child’s life, encouraging your child to embrace challenges, and staying connected with your child’s teacher. Learning Heroes also created the “Readiness Roadmap,” which provides grade-by-grade learning goal breakdowns and more.
College is more important than ever. Students depend on their parents to show them the way. And parents should be able to depend on us — all of us — to support their efforts. UNCF’s iconic motto declares that “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.”® For the return on that investment, the next generation of productive, college-educated Americans, accrues not only to the students in whose education we invest, but to us all.
Dr. Michael Lomax is the President and CEO @UNCF advocating for #BetterFutures. He is a lifelong professor and third-generation #HBCU graduate.