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College-Going Culture Toolkit

Icon of graduation cap


Learn how what you believe, say, see and do at school can contribute to a college-going culture.

A college-going culture sets high expectations for all students and provides them with the academic preparation and other tools to meet those expectations.

Why a college-going culture matters

School culture and climate directly affect student learning and engagement as well as college aspirations and preparation.

Students benefit from ever-present reminders of college expectations in visual reminders, verbal interactions and activities dedicated to exploring postsecondary opportunities. All school staff, plus families and students (and even the community) play a role in consistently echoing the expectation of education after high school.

What is a college-going culture?

School culture is what staff, students, and families believe, say, see, and do.

A college-going culture sets high expectations for all students and provides them with the academic preparation and other tools to meet those expectations.

Educators, students and communities can set the tone by creating traditions that celebrate college acceptances and academics, providing visual reminders of college and career, and regularly talking about the expectation for education after high school.

College pennants on a wall at Stayton High School
College pennants are a colorful way of decorating a school hallway or classroom.

Assessing your school’s culture

Start by answering questions that will help you and your staff begin to assess the culture of your school.

  • What are the expectations for all students and staff?
  • What are the conversations in the breakroom, the classrooms and the cafeteria?
  • What do you see when you walk down the halls?
  • What are the traditions at your school?
  • What is celebrated?

You can also specifically assess your college-going culture. Use our College-Going Culture Planning Guide to map out activities your school wants to implement.

What you believe

Build staff buy-in

A college-going culture starts with the expectations and attitudes of administrators, staff and teachers.

Administrators should lead College-Going Culture Staff Discussions  to discuss current data on academic achievement, college enrollment and student, teacher and parent attitudes as well as the merits of postsecondary education and the importance of high expectations. Ask staff: “What does college and career ready mean? “ and discuss the various answers and how to achieve these outcomes.

Create a mission statement

Mission statements for schools and organizations serve as guiding principles for staff, students, parents and the community. In order to create a college-going culture, these stakeholders need a shared, expressed goal; a college mission statement should succinctly state the expectation of postsecondary education for all students as well as lay out an action plan with measurable goals.

Creating and adopting a college mission statement and action plan should be a collaborative, inclusive process that encourages buy-in of all stakeholders. This may involve educating administrators, staff, students and parents about the importance of higher education.

In addition to a well-crafted mission statement, it may be helpful to have a slogan that sums up your intentions in a  digestible, catchy phrase. Keep it short—like what you would see on a bumper sticker.

Sample mission statements

  • YES Prep Public Schools (Houston, TX) will increase the number of students from underserved communities who graduate from college prepared to lead. 
  • Early College High School (Beaverton, OR) will provide all students, particularly those who are under-represented, the opportunity to complete a high school diploma, earn college credit, and develop both a vision and a specific plan to create the life they want to live.
  • KIPP Schools (nationwide) Together with families and communities, we create joyful, academically excellent schools that prepare students with the skills and confidence to pursue the paths they choose—college, career, and beyond—so they can lead fulfilling lives and build a more just world.

Elgin students next to a door display of the EOU Mountaineer
A door decoration contest gets the whole school involved in talking and thinking about college.

What you say

Talk regularly about the expectation of college with students and parents to reinforce the college mission statement. This message should come from everyone—administrators, teachers, staff, other students and the community. 

From the school

  • Language choices: Pay attention to the little things, such as saying “When you go to college...” not “If you go to college...”
  • College Awareness Announcements : Take advantage of a captive audience and share facts and information about college preparation one day a week.
  • College Conversations : Once a week, spend 5-10 minutes of dedicated time in Advisory or in a class to discuss students’ future plans and getting ready for college and career.

From parents

  • Newsletters: Send home monthly parent newsletters with conversation prompts.
  • Presentations : Offer workshops for parents and students that encourage conversations about postsecondary plans.

From peers

  • Student mentors: Use high school students as mentors and tutors. Have high school students create a short presentation or activity for elementary or middle school students about college.
  • Alumni Panel : Invite high school alumni who are now in college (as well as their parents!) to speak to current students and their parents to share what they wish they would have known.

From community

  • College Plan Poster : Send a student leadership group out into the community to hang posters in local businesses. Add your school name so the community can show their support.

What you see

Broadcast your college mission statement in halls and on walls. Think of it as advertising—but instead of selling toothpaste or sneakers, you’re selling postsecondary education.

Posters and more

  • Oregon Colleges Map : Hang our map of Oregon colleges or put up a state map and label all of the community colleges, 4-year universities and trade schools.
  • ABCs of Careers Posters ★ and ABCs of College Posters : Display in your classrooms or hallways to teach key terms about careers and college.
  • Teacher Door Poster : Display each teacher’s alma mater on their door.
  • FAFSA/ORSAA Tracker Poster : Keep track of the percentage of students completing financial aid applications and share the results in a public place.
  • Senior college acceptances: Take photos of seniors with their post-high school plans and display on a prominent wall.
  • College pennants: These can often be donated—make the ask with our Donation Request ★.
  • Computer bookmarks: Set the home page on every computer to or a college search site like BigFuture and pre-load college websites in the browser bookmarks.

Get creative

  • DIY Pennants : Have students make pennants of local universities or have them design their own perfect college.
  • College Door Wars : Provide paper, scissors, college catalogs and other materials to teachers and students to decorate their classroom doors with a college of their choice. Turn it into a competition and make it an annual event!
  • College t-shirt pillows: Check out thrift stores for college t-shirts; sew closed and stuff for comfy and collegiate style.
  • Bulletin boards: Use school bulletin boards for a rotating display of college and career themes such as College of the Month, SAT Word of the Day, or Cool Careers.
  • “I’m going to college” mirrors: Spruce up the bathrooms or buy cheap magnetic locker mirrors and decorate with affirming messages about higher education.

A female student signs a certificate saying where she is going to college at North Medford High School
A Decision Day celebration honors all students with a plan for after high school.

What you do

A college-going culture celebrates postsecondary education regularly and gives students the information and skills needed to succeed. Create school traditions and regular practices that encourage aspirations and highlight the college application process.

Celebrate achievements

  • Decision Day: Hold a ceremony or party for seniors with verifiable acceptance letters to college, the military or on-the-job training and post photos or certificates with their post-high school plans in a highly visible spot for students and parents to see.
  • Academic awards: Give trophies and awards to students and display them alongside (or in place of!) sports memorabilia.
  • Graduation walk: Have high school graduates walk through the elementary schools in their caps and gowns.

Make it part of class

  • Integrate college planning the curriculum: For example, assign college/scholarship application essay questions in ELA class or cover college budgeting in math.
  • Integrate college practices into the classroom: Align high school curriculum with college-level classes, encourage teachers to use syllabi.
  • Test preparation: Dedicate several class periods to college entrance exam preparation; encourage all students to take the SAT or ACT.

Support the process

  • Career and future planning: Have all students research careers and educational requirements.
  • College visits: Create a series of college visits starting in middle school to introduce students to a variety of colleges.
  • College application events: Provide seniors with dedicated time and support during the school day for the key tasks in the college application process. Hold a College Application Week and financial aid events to reach as many students as possible in a short amount of time!