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College Tours Demystify Campus Life for Parents New to Higher Ed

A new multigenerational college-tour program in Cleveland aims to get low-income parents more involved in their kids’ college futures.
Image: Parent University College Tours
Jesse Prather, from Euclid, Ohio, listens to the admissions presentation at Ohio State Mansfield campus while attending the Parent University College Tours on Mar. 26, in Mansfield, Ohio. Chris Langer / for NBC News

CLEVELAND—“O-H…” a chaperone shouted expectantly to a bus full of bleary-eyed passengers.

“I-O!” the group responded. It was 8:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday, and the bus was headed to Ohio State-Mansfield’s campus, a smaller, sleepier version of Ohio’s flagship university, about an hour outside the city. The bus was filled with kids of various ages, from eighth graders already anticipating college to seniors doing some last-minute planning for next year. But the bus was also filled with their parents—many of whom had never visited a college campus before.

These parents are pupils of Parent University, part of an effort by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to get parents, especially low-income ones, more involved in their kids’ schoolwork and, eventually, their college admissions processes. Launched in 2011 and inspired by a similar program in Boston, around 1,500 parents to date have attended sessions, which provide information about anything from Common Core standards to financial aid forms for college. The idea for the college tours originated when Tracy Hill, the district’s executive director for the Office of Family and Community Engagement, went on a five-college tour in Ohio with her own daughter and noticed a dearth of diversity.

“We were one of the only African-American families there,” she said. “There was just a sea of white…Cleveland parents were not represented there. They don’t know that these things are going on.”

Hill partnered with College Now, a nonprofit that helps Cleveland students apply for college scholarships and financial aid, to launch the parent tours last year. At first it was hard to get parents to come, even on a Saturday—50 people would register, Hill said, yet only five would show. But eventually, the word spread and the buses began filling up.

“Many of these students will be the first in their family to go to college, so their parents don’t know what a college campus is like,” Hill said “They get their information from the movies and think it’s all frats and party-party stuff. We demystify the college process for them. [These parents] don’t know to call colleges and say, ‘When is your visitation day?’”

Families from Parent University College Tours look around at the recreation center on the Ohio State Mansfield campus on Mar. 26, in Mansfield, Ohio.Chris Langer / for NBC News

These dual-generation college tour programs have sprung up in a few other places nationally; the Los Angeles school district has been conducting them for four years through their Parent College. This year, more than 1,000 parents and children have signed up for the tours in Cleveland, including Samone Austin, a 32-year-old mother of three. She took a day off from work doing hair at a salon to get on the bus that Thursday with her 16-year-old daughter, Shania, who is interested in becoming a nurse or a social worker.

“[Shania] needs to see everything that’s available to her,” said Austin, who had never gone on a college tour or visited a campus outside the city. She managed to finish high school and a semester of community college before she dropped out to work full-time at Sears. She remembers struggling in her math and English classes even before she got pregnant at 16—and no one in school or at home helped her with her coursework, let alone the college process.

“I probably would have either majored in business or something in health care,” she said. “I don’t want my children to have those regrets, and I know they need to be supported.”

Toby Parcel, a sociologist at North Carolina State University who co-authored a study linking parent involvement directly to student achievement, said these tours are part of building “social capital” for kids who otherwise don’t have it.

“[Middle-class] children just grow up with this notion that college is important,” giving them a head start when they get to high school, said Parcel. “Going on these college tours may be part of that catch-up for low-income kids. The earlier parents start talking about college with their children and setting that as a goal, the earlier kids will take on that goal for themselves.”

Having their parents there, said Parcel, will only crystallize kids’ motivation.

“If the kids are just going on the college tours by themselves, and the parents aren’t there to signal that this is important, some at-risk kids may not take it seriously,” she said.

“[Middle-class] children just grow up with this notion that college is important,” giving them a head start when they get to high school.

Upon arriving at the campus, the group was herded into an auditorium, where admissions officers and student volunteers handed out packets and ran down the basics: deadlines, facilities, majors, housing. Some of the parents dutifully took notes on the backs of their pamphlets.

After the presentation, a fresh-faced student tour guide named Tom brought the group on a tour of the grounds. It was a raw, gloomy day—void of the outdoor scenes on college brochures of students lounging in the courtyards—and the rural campus itself was made up of a few drab, institutional buildings. Still, a muted buzz of excitement permeated the group as they eyed the gym, the computer lab, the glittery sign advertising a 90s house party, the roomy, Febreze-scented student housing. Tom provided the group with promotional facts: The campus is ethnically diverse. None of the classes are taught by teaching assistants. It’s easy to get tickets to Ohio State football games.

“I know they’re happy about that,” said Jesse Prather, with a chuckle. He’s on the tour today with his two teenaged boys, Jai-Shon Stanard, 15, and Tyron Folds, 14. “They love sports, but I want them to have a plan B and plan C if basketball doesn’t work out.”

Prather never took college seriously as an option. His parents had worked in the cotton fields in Georgia until they moved up north, and “they never did the things I’m doing like showing up and signing up for things.” And it didn’t seem difficult to find work, anyway. Prather starting working at the General Electric plant right after high school.

“Cleveland was slightly different back then,” said Prather, who now works for a transportation company. “There were actually jobs around. Now you kind of need that college degree.”

Prather, who has seven sons, was looking forward to the last chunk of the tour: the part where the admissions officers talked frankly about money. The confusion and bureaucracy of paying for college—not to mention the cost itself—seemed to be the most daunting part of the college process for the Cleveland parents on the tour that day.

“A kid may have very good grades,” said Hill. “But the parents are the ones who have to sign the waivers for the application fee. They have to make sure they do their income taxes because they do the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] before the February deadline.”

Back on the bus after the tour, Austin was still a little nervous about the price tag—“those apartments seem expensive,” she said. But she admitted she now understood more about FAFSA and was glad to know the deadlines. “Hopefully we can get scholarships together. It seems like there’s stuff out there for [Shania],” she said.

Beyond practical information, Hill sees the tours as a chance for the school district to earn back parents’ trust. Cleveland’s school district has one of the worst reputations in the state—it’s ranked 608 out of 611 in academic performance—and as a result, 30,000 children have fled the system to charter or private schools.

Hill said many teachers and principals blame the parents. “They say, ‘they’re terrible. They’re ignorant. They don’t care.’” These tours, she said, not only expel this myth by their sheer participation rates, but also “change the culture from ‘parents are the problem’ to ‘parents are our partners.’”

For the longest time, “parents were the excuse for the kids not achieving,” said Hill. “You have to take that excuse away.”

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