Newswise — Students from underserved communities with post-secondary aspirations often face a barrier that’s close to home—their parents, who can be skeptical of the high cost of college, its alien culture and its tendency to uproot their children, frequently wage-earners contributing to the family income, from the community, often permanently.

For these reasons, it’s conventional wisdom among college advocacy groups and colleges that, although parents of first generation students are crucial influencers, engaging them through open houses, educational programs and college fairs is a low yield proposition. 

My organization, CFES Brilliant Pathways, was well aware of these challenges when we decided to develop a training program for the parents of students in our program—designed to inform them about the college application process and financial aid and help them instill in their children the skills they’d need to succeed. But we forged ahead despite the hurdles.

We expected 200 parents, perhaps 300, to respond to the program, which launched in late January and was targeted to parents in the 200 schools across the country with which we partner. To our surprise, 1,280 parents and caregivers, from Maine to California, enrolled. In one small west Texas town, almost every one of the 125 parents of the children attending the combined middle/high school signed up for the training.

What was it about our approach that worked? We decided to reverse engineer our process and share the insights we gleaned, in the hopes that other organizations might adopt these techniques and find similar success.

Here are the strategies we employed: 

Chunks not hunks 

For families with little first-hand experience with college or career training, learning the intricacies of the application process, the complex workings of financial aid, how their child can build a network of contacts and mentors, and how to help them develop skills like perseverance, resilience and teamwork, can seem overwhelming.

For that reason, we broke up our training program into digestible chunks—four 30 minute online sessions, two on demand—and promoted that format heavily. The result: parents saw that we valued their time and committed to our bite-size program. 

Channel the channels 

What vehicles did we use to promote the training? Rather than reinvent the wheel by creating our own outreach program, we relied on schools’ existing communications platforms: ParentSquare, SchoolTool, and Facebook. Not only did we strategically reach parents, we benefited from the imprimatur of the school’s implicit support of our program.

Relationships with—and in—schools 

CFES was able to make use of schools’ communications infrastructure because of another important element of our strategy, one that admittedly can’t be built overnight. For over 30 years, we’ve partnered with underserved schools in their college and career placement efforts—and as a result have longstanding relationships with many schools that we were able to harness. In addition, CFES has relationships with specific educators in schools and, in some cases, liaisons we place within their walls. With their help, we earned the trust of parents through their children. 


Given the massive amount of information involved, it’s easy to overcomplicate the process of applying to and paying for college. To address that challenge, we kept our messaging simple, knowing we could provide the details later. Addressing the number one concern of parents, for instance, we emphasized that there are unused scholarship and financial aid dollars waiting for families, partly due to pandemic-inspired under-enrollment, if they learned how to access it. We kept other messages similarly short, sweet and benefits-oriented. 

Seek Partners

Few schools, especially in underserved communities, exist in a vacuum; many work with community organizations and nonprofits to offer mentoring, job placement and after-school enrichment programs for students. Whenever possible, we tapped into these existing support networks. At the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Mass., for instance, a group of City Year AmeriCorps volunteers, young people the school worked with on other projects, reached out to school parents personally.

Spur involvement 

Burke provides another example of what worked. School leadership got students involved in our engagement efforts by throwing a pizza party for those who enrolled their parents in the training program, which brought even more of them on board. In the Texas example mentioned earlier, the community was the star. Parents in Van Horn, Texas, 90% of whom are Hispanic, enrolled in the training program because, building on the town’s culture of mutual support and the encouragement of our CFES liaison—they saw our program as a way to benefit not just students, but the community.

Offer a credential

Our College and Career Advising (CCR) training program, on which the parent program is based, is certified by our partner, the University of Vermont. After completing the training, parents received a certificate from UVM, a fact that spoke to the quality of the program. 

Create buzz 

Finally, we offered a $25 gift card to all the parents who participated. The card was valuable in and of itself—covering a bag of groceries or half-tank of gas—but it also created buzz. We were surprised at how fast news of the parent training moved within, and between, our partner schools. The gift card was a quick and easy benefit to promote the program.

I hope these techniques prove useful to others. At the very least, they help dispel the myth that parents of students in underserved communities don’t have the time or inclination to help their children pursue post-secondary education. With the right kind of program and messaging delivered through trusted channels and influencers, it is indeed possible to reach these parents — and help make sure students of all backgrounds are ready for college and the workplace.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways,  a college-readiness nonprofit that has helped over 100,000 students from underserved communities attend college.