The road to college has many pitfalls, from failure to take the right courses in high school to fixating on unaffordable universities. Education Lab tapped the expertise of two very different sources to help point the way.

Share story

(Editor’s note: For the back-to-school season, Education Lab asked readers what is on their minds this time of year. We’ve answered three questions so far — here, here and here— and will cover more over the next few weeks.)

Many students learn far too late that the requirements for graduating from high school with a diploma do not necessarily match those for getting into college.

This is especially true for foreign-language classes — most colleges want at least two years — and math, where more than half of high-school graduates here must do remedial work once they get to campus.

“What is the road map for a single mom who’s overwhelmed?” Amber Timmerman, recently asked Education Lab on behalf of her sister, who has three children, including a 16-year-old. She never went to college and has no idea how to navigate that system for her kids. She “works really hard,” Timmerman said, “but has no extra energy to put toward college stuff. Is there a checklist?”

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

The simple answer is, yes: On the Ready. Set. Grad. website, you can click on your child’s grade — if they are in the sixth through 12th — and get an outline of where they should be in the process, and what they should be doing. It also can also do translations for parents and students who do not speak English as a first language.

Also, check theWashboard site, which allows students to enter some basic information and pull up a list of available scholarships.

For a more personal take, Education Lab found two very different experts to weigh in.

One is Alejandra Perez, 23, the daughter of a single mother who cleans houses, and arrived at Cleveland High School for sophomore year. She and her family had emigrated from Guatemala and landed first in California, where Perez was told that as an undocumented student, she could not attend college in the United States.

Untrue in Washington, said Ray Garcia-Morales, an assistant principal at the school.

He helped Perez connect with the College Success Foundation, which works with low-income students in the Seattle, Highline, Kent and Auburn schools. Those accepted to the foundation’s Achiever Scholars program get mentors to help them figure out which courses to take and which colleges will provide the best fit.

Crucially, the foundation also helps link students with scholarships.

Perez collected a total of 22. Some amounted to just a few hundred dollars. Others were more substantial. For Perez, they added up to a degree. Last June, she graduated from the University of Washington, Bothell, with a major in American ethnic studies.

“It wasn’t until someone told me that all this was possible that I really began focusing on my grades,” she said. “It gave me a purpose in high school.”

Many of these lessons Perez learned by “living in the college and career center” at school.

Families who work with Nikki Danos, a veteran college counselor and admissions officer, get more targeted advice.

Danos, who spent five years with the Rainier Scholars college-preparatory program for low-income students, and now works at the all-girls Forest Ridge school in Bellevue, offered these tips:

Ninth- and 10th-graders should take the most rigorous classes possible, while maintaining good grades. They should also join clubs that truly interest them — rather than those that look good on paper — and consider volunteering in their neighborhoods.

“Colleges want to know ‘what does this student do when he or she is not in school?’ ” she said.

As for athletic scholarships, Danos was blunt.

Students with any chance for a full ride via sports generally hear from recruiters by the end of sophomore year. And that’s still no guarantee.

“I’d have a backup plan,” Danos said. “Do not rely on playing sports in college.”

The most economical route to a bachelor’s degree, she added, is spending two years at a community college and transferring to a four-year.

“It’s not the most glamorous route, but it’s practical,” Danos said.

For students with good grades and the willingness to live elsewhere, she suggests perusing the list of four-year schools that meet 100 percent of tuition costs.

These colleges and universities require lots of extra paperwork, but between work-study, grants and loans, they will fill the gap for accepted students.

That’s critical, Danos said, because the saddest stories she hears are those where low-income students are accepted to their dream schools, take out thousands of dollars in loans and find the weight unsustainable.

“They end up moving home,” she said, “and starting again from scratch.”

This post has been updated with two additional websites since its original publication.