Building a college access pipeline

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Thursday, July 29, 2021

A program in Maryland uses sport and games to connect university students with marginalized middle-school youth to create a college access pipeline.

Students of color and low-income youth are at a considerable disadvantage compared to their white peers, especially those living in more affluent school districts, as they are less likely to graduate high school, less likely to attend and graduate college, and more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. In most areas of life, the youth who live in underserved communities face hurdles in seeing a successful future.

Underserved communities are defined as areas with a shortage of personal services for residents, including economic, cultural, and linguistic barriers influencing their health and well-being. While there is a clear need for social policy and other macro-level initiatives to reduce these social inequalities, youth in underserved communities are well-served right now by life-skill and personal development programs at the more micro level. This is where our program focuses its efforts.

Youth development

Over the last few decades, the field of positive youth development (PYD) has experienced growth, moving from prevention of detrimental actions to a proactivestrength-based perspective of development. Other research has indicated that positive youth development should be considered from an even broader community context. Community youth development (CYD) is defined as purposeful, created environments that provide constructive, positive, and encouraging relationships that are sustained over time with adults and peers, while providing opportunities that allow youth to build their skills, and become engaged as partners in the development of themselves and their communities.

Similarly, sport-based youth development (SBYD) programs use sport and physical activity as the means for achieving PYD outcomes. They provide youth with structured physical activities and experiences that prioritize not only physical development, but the development of personal and social life skills. Research has found that when a positive environment and a focus on life skills are present, SBYD outcomes are enhanced and the transfer of life skills to other areas is more likely.

College Experience Program

With CYD and SBYD in mind, “The College Experience Program” was developed by faculty, students, coaches, and student-athletes at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland beginning in 2018. A partnership was formed between a public elementary/middle (K through 8) school in Baltimore and our private liberal arts college, with the help of funding from primarily Under Armour.

Though only about an hour away by car, the two communities couldn’t be much different. The combined elementary and middle school is located in one of Baltimore’s poorest and most distressed neighborhoods and is almost entirely populated by black students from poor and working-class families, while our university campus is nestled in the hills and mountainside of rural Maryland and serves a diverse but still mostly white and middle-class undergraduate population. The partnership creates something of a culture shock for the young students. We believe it provides them an opportunity to imagine various futures for themselves.

Summer camp

An overnight, week-long camp for middle school students was developed and successfully run during the summers of 2018 and 2019. Due to COVID-19 we were unable to run the camp during the summers of 2020 and 2021, but plans are in place to resume the camp in 2022. Staffed by full-time university faculty, students, coaches, and student-athletes, the camp aims to (1) demystify the college experience, (2) build academic skills, and (3) increase social capital. A combination of classroom academics, sports training, and outdoor/recreational adventures are used to achieve these aims.

The summer camp provides middle school youth the opportunity to live in dorms, eat in the dining hall, learn in classrooms, and compete on courts and fields, all while interacting with undergraduate students and student-athletes who are hand-selected to serve as role models and mentors. Similarly, enthusiastic faculty, staff, and coaches are identified and recruited to work with the middle school students during their time on campus. Several academic areas (e.g., reading, writing, math, and art) and sports (e.g., rugby, baseball/softball, basketball, and track and field) are used to engage students as they learn about study skills, time management, problem solving, and self-advocacy.

Expanding programming

Additional elements have emerged organically since the founding of this partnership. Besides the summer camp for middle school students, the university has also developed a reading program where undergraduate students use Zoom technology to visit classrooms and read to the students at the public school. The classroom teachers report that their students—ranging from kindergarten to the 5th grade—greatly enjoy the weekly reading sessions. The teachers are also report an increased interest in books and reading they attribute to the reading program.

Additionally, “The College Experience Program” directors visit the middle school for various initiatives to further relationships with the youth participants and school administrators.  

Lastly, campus visits by the middle school students during the academic year are arranged so that they can attend sporting and cultural events on campus. It is the intent to create multiple touchpoints throughout the year for which youth can increase their skills and development.

A mutually beneficial partnership

The initial years have shown us that this partnership is needed, appreciated, and mutually beneficial. We aim over the next couple of years to flesh out assessment efforts already underway to gauge the impact of our efforts. Our long-term vision is the creation of a college access pipeline that changes the life trajectories of students who face many obstacles.  We hope our efforts might encourage others in higher education and sport to use their considerable resources, energy, and expertise to do the same.

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Story by:

Corinne Farneti, Ph.D. is an associate professor and program director of sport management at Mount St. Mary’s University. Her current areas of interest include sport for development and community engagement, as well as recreational leadership.

Timothy Wolfe, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Human Services. His current areas of interest include antiracism, building resilience, and the sociology of go-go music