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Closing the College Opportunity Gap

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Laura Owen and Johnnetta B. Cole in conversation
CPRS Director and School of Education Research Prof. Laura Owen shares a light moment with Johnnetta B. Cole, anthropologist, educator, and former museum director and college president. Cole was the keynote speaker at an event to celebrate the new center.

In recent years, the United States has fallen behind many other countries in the number of young Americans getting more education than their parents. As a result, many education scholars contend, the college opportunity gap – in which low-income students don't enter college or complete a four-year degree – has widened.

With an emphasis on closing this gap, a new center at American University will advance knowledge about the support that K-12 students need to improve their access to college and better prepare them for college and careers. The Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, housed in AU's School of Education, will be at the forefront of helping to discover and implement new ways to best support students as they navigate their postsecondary path.

"Informed by the latest and most robust research findings into student outcomes, the center's mission will be to put best practices and knowledge into the hands of policymakers, while also connecting it to K-12 counselors, teachers and leaders," said Laura Owen, research professor and director of CPRS.

The high school students who have the greatest need for support are low-income, first-generation and students of color, but they are often the least likely to meet with a trained professional for career guidance, college admissions or financial aid support, according to Owen.

Systemic challenges persist. In high-poverty, under-resourced schools, the ratio of school counselors to students is high. According to The National Association for College Admission Counseling and The American School Counselor Association, the national student-to-counselor ratio is 482:1. The organizations recommend a ratio of 250:1 and note that only three states (New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming) maintain one lower than this. In many schools in the U.S., there's a police officer, but no school counselor, Owen explains.

Among the center's goals are to identify a common set of practitioner competencies needed to support students on their postsecondary path; reimagine, reframe, and conduct interdisciplinary research to unpack effective practices that support equitable student postsecondary exploration and planning; and publish practitioner, family, and student-friendly reports to disseminate knowledge, provide tools and increase exposure to foster replication throughout U.S. schools of evidence-based practices.

With Owen as the center's director and SOE Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, the center has two scholars steeped in recent years of work and collaboration to address the systemic challenges. Both Holcomb-McCoy and Owen participate in the Reach Higher Initiative spearheaded by former First Lady Michelle Obama. Reach Higher focuses on all U.S. students completing their education past high school, whether at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university.

The center also will partner with organizations whose aim is to improve equity in education and is guided by an advisory board of education scholars, practitioners, and leaders.