Sidebar: Transitioning from Small Schools to College: Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

“In one of our early meetings someone said, ‘It’s not fair that colleges get to choose us – can’t we choose them?’ This started us thinking about the types of colleges WE would be interested in – what colleges WE would choose . . . we wrote about our lives, our interests . . . We developed long lists of questions about what we wanted to know about college and then set out to find the answers.” – College Explorers Student

The Institute for Urban Education at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts works with small public schools in New York City to prepare young people for the high school to college transition. Combining what is known about the college-application and college-going process for low-income students of color with a belief in inquiry-driven learning, the Institute’s programs help high school students to become “youth researchers” in understanding college. Through both the Institute’s College Explorers and the College Immersion programs, students develop a sense of ownership over the college application and decision-making process critical to moving towards and ultimately persisting through college.

The Institute’s mission is to help schools recognize what their students do and do not know about college and to create opportunities for them to expand that knowledge. Its belief is that students need an understanding of the system of higher education, internalized beliefs about why college matters, and practice at making informed decisions in order to successfully navigate the obstacles that will come their way.

When students begin in the Institute’s programs in 9th grade, the majority have a very incomplete vision of college. While 76% definitely want to attend college, and an additional 24% are strongly considering it, only 50% have ever visited a campus and an additional 24% have visited only one. As these 9th graders move through the Institute’s College Explorers program they do research on “college” – exploring campuses, interviewing students and university staff, confronting their own stereotypes about college, and thinking about what they might like college to mean for them. As they move beyond the 9th grade, students continue to engage in inquiry-projects around college-going in America, investigating questions of financial aid, community colleges, majors, etc. In the 11th and 12th grades, students can participate in the College Immersion Program where they are given the opportunity to take classes at Eugene Lang College. All courses are college-level with some limited to high school students, others an even mix of high school and college students, and others predominately college students. The intent is that if students undertake college-level work, negotiate a campus, and interact with professors before attending college they will be that much more confident when they move into post-secondary experiences.

In the end, participants in the Institute for Urban Education programs emerge believing they too can do some of the choosing.

For more information on the Institute in Urban Education’s programs, please see go to their website,, or contact the Institute’s director, Daphne Farganis at

Lori Chajet is a Ph.D. candidate in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She was a teacher at a small public school on the lower East Side of Manhattan for six years and has continued to work with a variety of small schools on issues related to professional development.