Sunday 22 September 2019

Making college a rite of passage for everyone

Campaign launched to encourage more students from under-represented groups to pursue a degree or other qualification, writes Katherine Donnelly

Catherine Douglas. Picture: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX
Catherine Douglas. Picture: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Among the findings of the latest 'Growing up in Ireland' study, published last week, is the continuing rise in the number of mothers who expect their child to go to college.

In Ireland, mothers, in particular, have a tradition of high educational aspirations for their sons and daughters, but it is worth noting that it now stands at 82pc of mothers of nine-year-olds foreseeing the child obtaining a degree or higher qualification.

Even since 2007, that figure is up from 71pc, and there is also a rise over the same period, from 22pc to 33pc, in the proportion of parents who expect their nine-year-old to achieve a postgraduate qualification, such as a master's degree.

As usual, expectations are highest - over 90pc - in families with higher incomes and/or higher levels of maternal education, compared with 68pc in the lowest income families and 58pc where the mother's education stopped at Junior Cert.

It is those gaps in expectations that initiatives such as College Awareness Week (CAW), which starts next Monday, seeks to address.

It will be hard to avoid, as there are events going on in schools, colleges, libraries and other venues all over the country. So far, there are more than 600 events registered on the CAW website around the country.

The campaign is supported by the pharmaceutical company Perrigo - which will be sending staff around Ireland to assist with course and career expos - as well as a range of organisations such as the further education and training authority, Solas, the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) and Trinity College Dublin.

What does going to college and obtaining a degree-level qualification mean anymore? About 80,000 apply for a higher education place via the CAO every year, mainly 17 to 20-year olds, but it has evolved well beyond a CAO points-driven direct path from school to third-level.

School-leavers now have a myriad of routes to gaining a significant qualification that will lay the foundations for a fulfilling career.

Solas' involvement in CAW is an indicator of the array of choices beyond traditional CAO options.

For instance, within Solas' remit are colleges that run Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses, which can be an end in themselves, although many school-leavers and others use them as a stepping stone to higher education, often gaining access to courses that would have been out of their reach had they been relying on CAO points.

Today's school-leavers also have their pick of a growing number of apprenticeships, both traditional and in new areas - such as insurance, financial services, auctioneering, cheffing, laboratory technician - offering an earn and learn, part work/part college approach to gaining qualifications up to degree level and above. These also fall into Solas' area of responsibility.

Notwithstanding the breadth of opportunity, raising awareness and instilling confidence about going to college in students, who, perhaps, have no tradition of further or higher education in their family, can be an uphill battle. Progression to college in areas of educational disadvantage can be as low as 26pc or less. People with a disability are also among those who are under-represented in college.

In a new twist to the campaign this year, CAW is running a Community Mentoring Programme, which has involved training up to 250 undergraduates to act as mentors. They will share information and advice about their college experience during visits to schools in disadvantaged areas and adult/community education facilities across Dublin City.

The mentors are drawn from the Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT), National College of Art and Design (NCAD), UCD, TCD and Marino Institute of Education which, between them, cater for a very wide spectrum of study choices.

Catherine Douglas (left) is a CAW success story.

The youngest of six from Finglas, Dublin, no one in her family had been to college or even considered it.

This time last year, she was a sixth-year student in St Joseph's Secondary School, Stanhope Street, Dublin, where her guidance counsellor Valerie Carson, laid on a "speed dating"-style event where students talked directly to various professionals.

"It was an eye-opener," says Catherine (17), who subsequently applied to the Trinity Access programme (TAP) and is currently doing a TAP foundation course with a view to starting a nursing degree programme next September,

"I love it " she says.

Irish Independent

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