Although the Maine Department of Education boasts that the state has an 87.4 percent high school graduation rate, one of the highest in the country, the Mitchell Institute reports that only 50 percent of high school graduates in 2002 enrolled in post-secondary education. This week, nine Bowdoin students presented results from statewide high school focus groups exploring the gap between college intentions and enrollment.

As part of a comprehensive study by the Mitchell Institute on barriers to post-secondary education in Maine, these student researchers conducted interviews with high school students across the state. Together, they identified some of the reasons keeping Maine high school students from going to college, including cultural and financial issues. The group then made a series of recommendations for communities, schools, and families.

"The Mitchell Institute's work has a deep relevancy to Bowdoin students who are concerned with the common good. In particular, Bowdoin students from Maine are especially aware of the barriers facing high school students when considering postsecondary plans," said junior abroad Aisha Woodward, a coordinator of the project, in an e-mail to the Orient.

The Mitchell Institute is dedicated to increasing the chances that students across Maine will pursue a college education. The organization awards scholarships, supports educational and preparation programs, and conducts research.

In 2002, with a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the group researched and released a report entitled "Barriers to Postsecondary Education in Maine." The report examined ways to facilitate access to higher education and offered suggestions for communities and schools to help students pursue post-secondary education.

Early in 2006, the institute received another grant for a second "Barriers" study to explore the disparity between Maine students' intentions to go to college and the actual enrollment rate. This study has four main components: a survey of college enrollment from Maine high schools, interviews and focus groups conducted by college students across Maine, surveys of hundreds of parents and students about high school and college, and recommendations for schools and communities to encourage the transition between high school and college.

To perform the interviews with high school students, the Mitchell Institute met with Director of the Community Service Resource Center Susie Dorn in the fall 2006 semester. According to Dorn, Woodward immediately took a strong interest in the project, made connections for research, set schedules, and worked with students and Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley. Although Woodward is studying abroad in Ghana for the spring 2007 semester, Dorn said Woodward plans to pursue the issue upon her return.

The group of student researchers, primarily residents of Maine, included Thu-Nga Ho '07, Sara Afienko '08, Michel Bamani '08, Dustin Brooks '08, Jamie Burwood '08, Nate Lovitz '08, Jess McGreehan '08, and Cati Mitchell '09.

McGreehan said that while the first Barriers research project in 2002 compiled a lot of statistics, the second project provides more personal accounts of the challenges facing Maine students.

"I think this project that we've done has been so much more beneficial to whoever's going to see it, which will hopefully help the students. These are really their voices, and in the focus groups it was really powerful to hear everything they had to say. I don't think a survey captures that, or can capture that," she said.

Looking for themes

The student researchers met on a weekly basis during the fall semester, discussing the project and logistics, drafting questions, and conducting a few sample focus groups in the Brunswick area. The students then returned to their home regions in Maine over Winter Break and arranged more focus groups with high school students. Two days before the start of the spring 2007 semester, the group shared its results, looked for overarching themes, and brainstormed recommendations.

Collectively, the group chose four broad topics relevant to students and college: cultural influences, school preparation, family involvement, and financial challenges. The presentation shared student anecdotes and summarized how each topic affected student decisions to pursue college.

The research showed that communities understood the importance of college for obtaining a career, but that students had an overall lack of resources and knowledge about initiating the process. Many high school students in the focus groups would be first-generation college students, so the families were unsure how to handle the college search process, applications, and financial aid.

In the high schools, the guidance counselors tended to be too overwhelmed to spend time on individual students' desires for college, leaving some feeling alone and confused in the process. The research showed most students did not know how to prepare the right courses or extracurricular activities until their junior or senior year.

In other cases, even if the students received support from their community, family, or school, many face financial challenges to pay for college. Student researchers said there was too much emphasis on low paying merit scholarships, as opposed to larger federal financial aid. Students do not have a grasp on their options and may turn to the military or part-time jobs instead of planning for college.

Overall, the research suggested that students tend to be intimidated by the college process and are unsure of how to proceed.

"The thing that really struck me most was just how important these issues were to the students," Burwood said. "The perception that these high school students couldn't care less about the issues couldn't be further from the truth."

Burwood said she was in a similar situation while applying to colleges: in the dark about need-based financial aid and unaware of the types of resources colleges like Bowdoin can offer students.

Lovitz said he was fortunate to have a family that encouraged and guided him through the process.

"Really, the main issue in my groups was the lack of knowledge from the kids and the fact that they should be approached about going to college much sooner," he said. "They're not finding out what they should do until the middle of their junior year, when it's already too late for some things. They're far behind with what they need to know."

McGreehan said she developed a personal connection with her student focus groups, offering them chances to ask questions and contact her, so as not to feel lost.

"As a Maine student, I thought I was going through the college process alone, that I was the only one who couldn't afford it, I was the only one having a hard time with the paperwork and financial aid process. After doing this study, I realized I wasn't the only one in that boat, but the whole state is," said McGreehan.

Initiating the process

Based upon their findings, the students made a series of recommendations in an attempt to remedy the enrollment gap. The students expressed the need for everything from more guidance counselors to more school preparation.

The group suggested that college graduates become college fellows for high school students to offer advice on the college process. The members emphasized the need to start the college process earlier, by preparing for tests, the application process, and financial aid.

The researchers said teachers should advise students beyond academics by building the idea of college earlier. Also, the group recommended that schools work to spark the interest of high school students early, alerting students as to what needs to be done to reach their college goal.

Based on the thoroughness of the group's findings, Dorn said at the presentation that she was excited by the work of the Bowdoin students for the Mitchell Institute's study.

"We hope this study can serve as a springboard for the future involvement of Bowdoin students addressing the issue through coordinated volunteer efforts based upon articulated objectives," said Dorn.

"The overwhelming response to the [admissions program] Aspirations in Maine Day coupled to the passion exhibited by the students participating in this research project demonstrates to me the incredible possibilities that lie ahead for Bowdoin students to address a real need in the state of Maine?as only they can," she added.

At the presentation, Executive Director of Mitchell Institute Colleen Quint said that she agreed with many of the points raised by the student researchers. She said there is a need to make the college process more active for students and families involved, perhaps through more programs like Kick Start Maine that would initiate the college process earlier in school.

Brunswick High School Community Service Coordinator Rick Wilson said he has many concerns about the current state of education in Maine. He said that there need to be major changes in the infrastructure of education: place more emphasis on the college process in general, update the type of real-world education students receive, and encourage student interaction with the community.

"We need to start seriously pinning down why the on-to-college rate is so low, and I think these focus groups help do that. The Mitchell Institute in the past has been very in-step with trying to establish reasons why, and I think policies can come forth from that to help increase enrollment," he said.

The Bowdoin student researchers plan on meeting a few times this semester to discuss how to apply the research?through programming, presentations, or more projects.

Burwood said the main objective is to make people aware of the issues, talk about them, and spark an interest. The group plans on developing some of the recommendations in the coming semesters with Bowdoin's resources.

McGreehan said she hopes the research will help "communities open their eyes" to meet the needs of college-bound students, help colleges play a more active role, and help teachers identify what students need to prepare for college and develop a new curriculum.

Riley, the sociology professor, said she wants the students to get exposure for the research they've done so that change may be instituted in Maine, and that Bowdoin could stand to play a larger role in the issue. She said high school students, including her daughter, are excited by college students who visit as mentors and role models, and that Bowdoin should get more involved to help out.

"There's something about this which is really good, to use the skills that Bowdoin students, staff, and faculty have, and use it in a way that helps the communities around us," she said.

Wilson agreed, emphasizing the role that college students can have in high school.

"I'd love to see Bowdoin become a little more responsible for its communities and its backyard, maybe through these campus visits and things," he said. "It's about kids trying to learn about the business world, learn from those who are working, about what it takes. I'm particularly passionate about that?we're trying to develop some sort of relationship between businesses and students."

Although the final report from the second "Barriers" study will not be released until July 2007, the group already has identified major areas of concern to focus on.

Woodward said her work was a "wonderful experience" to relate with students and looks forward to putting the research to use.

"Our work with the Mitchell Institute provided an excellent opportunity to match our talents with an important need in our communities across the state," she said. "I am excited about how our relationship with the Mitchell Institute and local high schools has grown, and I am looking forward to many opportunities the College might have to serve as a resource to Maine high school students across the state."