On April 10, a free college preview trip to Humboldt State in Northern California ended in a tragic bus crash that killed five Southern California teens and three college advocates, along with injuring dozens of others. Since the accident, dozens of counselors and teachers at urban schools around southern Los Angeles have contacted me, letting me know whether or not their students on the free long weekend trip were safe or not. They know I am an advocate of college access and that I actively encourage low-income high school seniors to take advantage of free college visits during the spring of their senior years of high school.

While nothing can reduce the unimaginable loss of these students and college advocates, I hope we can work together to help the surviving students and their families see the beauty of a four-year college education at a college like Humboldt State. For the past 20 years, Humboldt State, a mid-size public university in Northern California, has understood that to convince diverse students to matriculate, it needs to bring them to campus in April, the month before admitted students must decide which college to accept. Through its free Preview Weekend, more than 100 first-generation college going high school seniors from Southern California get to experience three days of college life and to learn about the bevy of supports Humboldt offers, including amazing academic programs and outstanding learning and living communities.

The high school seniors attending the 2014 trip came from dozens of Southern California schools and communities. Unlike many of their affluent peers who can visit colleges all month with their families, these students needed the college-sponsored trip to visit Humboldt. Many of their teachers, friends, and counselors, including me, encouraged them to attend the trip, as we know the benefits of authentic college visits. Several students missed key events, including proms and athletic competitions, because they too recognized the power of visiting a college far away from home.

Challenges In Recruiting Diverse Students
Hundreds of colleges around the country, like Humboldt, understand the academic and economic effects of educating first generation, under-represented students as more than 63% of all jobs will soon require a college education. These students not only transform their own lives by attending four-year colleges, but they also change the lives of their college peers and of their own families and communities. Yet convincing diverse, accepted students to go away to college is often challenging as visiting colleges is too expensive and families often want seniors to stay closer at home, even if it means accepting a lower level college.

Free College Visits Work
So it makes perfect sense that paid college visits are linked to higher matriculation rates for under-represented students at match colleges. Fortunately, some under-represented high school sophomores and juniors get to visit colleges on tours funded by federally outreach programs, such as Upward Bound and Gear Up, by non-profits, and by the colleges themselves. More than 50 colleges offer fly-in programs for individual under-represented seniors the fall of senior year to encourage them to apply and several dozen others offer free trips in April to help encourage admitted students to accept their admissions offers.

Because of these trips, I know dozens of first-generation college students from Southern California attending colleges in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and all parts of California on full scholarships. One student, a current sophomore at Brown, told me the courses, professors, students, internships, and networks are opening a world to her that she never knew existed. Without a free April visit senior year, she says she would have never seen the potential of this college experience firsthand.

Humboldt’s Extraordinary Program
Humboldt is unique in the world of colleges in its large-scale efforts to recruit, educate, and support first generation students. Located in a rural, northern part of California, this public university has long believed that all students should have access to its strong programming. In addition to offering its Preview Weekend for more than 100 students annually, it provides numerous supports for first-generation college students from a summer bridge program to first-year learning communities, free tutoring and advising, and support classes. Five years ago, I interviewed two urban Los Angeles Humboldt undergraduates, who attributed the Preview Weekend to helping them decide to attend the campus. Visiting with other education hungry students helped them form a community months before college started and also let them know they were not alone in their college dreams. In fact, more than 45% of students who attend Preview Weekend decide to accept Humboldt’s admissions offer.

Please Offer Your Support
I hope that the tragic bus crash does not deter the larger world of college access for other diverse students in Southern California and around the country. Please help teachers, counselors, families, and communities continue encouraging high school seniors to accept one of the four-year colleges that accepted them and to consider colleges away from home that allow them to develop in extraordinary, empowering ways. Please support Humboldt and other colleges in their ongoing commitment to recruiting and educating first-generation, under-represented students. We all benefit from these efforts.

By Rebecca Joseph