Boston students’ path to college, careers has been unpaved for too long

A major divide persists between Boston’s high school students who achieve their college dreams and those who don’t.
By Wendy Foster

As detailed in a recent report
, Boston students’ college prospects are not nearly as bright as they should be. In fact, they’re more like a flickering light bulb.

The percentage of college-going high school graduates who successfully earn degrees within six years has remained stagnant, hovering around 50 percent. For a city whose reputation is centered on world-class colleges and universities, we must do more to support our students’ college success.

The bleak reality is that a major divide persists between Boston’s high school students who achieve their college dreams and those who don’t. This gap is most apparent along racial and gender lines, with black and Latino students achieving at far lower levels than other ethnic groups, and males achieving at lower rates than females. Students who must also navigate the challenge of being the first in their family to attend college face even more dire odds.


While Success Boston provides coaching to college-bound high schoolers and ongoing support as they transition to college, for many this comes too late.

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Earlier intervention; a more holistic, inclusive approach to college and career readiness; and individualized help are critical building blocks that, combined with Success Boston support, will empower Boston’s high school students to pursue — and successfully complete — their postsecondary plans.

With a statewide average student-to-guidance-counselor ratio of 423 to 1 — which is 59 percent higher than the recommended ratio of 250 to 1 — the college counseling function must be supplemented to provide adequate support, particularly for low-income and first-generation college students.

To create a culture centered around college and career readiness, curriculums must be designed to build foundational social and emotional skills, such as critical thinking, resiliency, leadership development, and goal-setting, all of which are crucial to success both in the classroom and in the workforce.

From there, students need the opportunity to explore a wide range of career options and knowledge about the postsecondary requirements necessary to pursue a career in any field. This enables each student to begin framing the right postsecondary option for them by receiving more comprehensive and inclusive support, regardless of whether that path will take them onto a college campus or instead to a vocational training program or military service.


For students who select a path requiring a college degree, individualized support is needed to help navigate the complexities of college applications, financial aid, and ultimately selecting the program that will provide the best fit. Regardless of the postsecondary plan selected, students must receive adequate preparation for the transition and ongoing support in the next phase of their education.

While much of this preparation takes place in the classroom, additional guidance and support from a mentor is key to ensure that low-income and first-generation college students see their plans through. Being able to consult with someone who has been through college themselves is often the overlooked intangible that prevents first-generation students from giving up on their education and career aspirations.

Cross-sector partnerships that pair postsecondary planning and college readiness curriculum with the consistent support of a college-educated mentor provide important steppingstones
toward creating a more comprehensive system. In collaboration with Boston Public Schools, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay is partnered with Boston Green Academy and the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, pairing every student with mentors starting in ninth grade. Dubbed the Mentor 2.0 program, this initiative, pioneered by iMentor, reports that participating students are 29 percent more likely to go to college compared with peers from similar schools.

On a larger scale, we need more cross-sector partnerships, mentors, and a college-readiness curriculum overhaul to ensure that inner-city students receive the knowledge and guidance they need to successfully pursue their desired postsecondary path. We can have a transformative impact on Boston’s youth and our region.

Wendy Foster is president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.

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