Signing day events: The art of hyping students up for college

When I was in the ninth grade, I went to high school with former NBA All-Star Rashard Lewis. At the time he was a senior and a phenomenal basketball star. I remember he was heavily recruited by multiple colleges to play for them on an athletic scholarship. He was also toying with the idea of skipping college and going directly into the NBA (this, of course, was before the NBA changed the minimum age requirements to enter the draft). Our school seemed to always have media and press on campus especially, leading up to his press conference in which he would announce his decision. As a freshman, I attended the pep rally the school held in his honor in which he would make his public announcement. The local news and media were present in addition to the entire school body, faculty and staff. Rashard announced that he would forego going to college and would be entering into the 1998 NBA Draft. Lewis was selected 32 by the Seattle Supersonics. He had a very productive career, earning two NBA All-Star appearances and winning an NBA championship ring later with his teammates Lebron James and Dwyane Wade for the Miami Heat in 2013.

Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D.

Rashard Lewis has since retired from the NBA, but I still remember vividly the excitement and overall school pride we had for our hometown hero. As I think back to my high school experience in the ninth grade, I can’t help but wonder “Why don’t we celebrate our academic all-stars the same as athletic all-stars?” When you think about it in this day and age, a college degree is starting to become the standard if you want to enter a professional career that will earn more over a lifetime than a high school graduate. Yet, for some reason, many students are not choosing to matriculate into a postsecondary institution upon completion of high school. So I ask, what can a high school administrator do to help increase awareness and motivation for students to go on to college?

Celebrating a student athlete’s decision to sign a letter of commitment to a university program is not an uncommon phenomenon in the United States. NCAA High school prospects receive admittance into multiple universities in which they are visited personally by coaches and recruiters and scouted at their high school games. Depending on the level of ability and popularity of the athlete, there may be press coverage, special assemblies, and social media posts anticipating the candidates’ decision. These students typically are awarded full athletic scholarships for committing to the university program and receive all of the perks of being a student athlete on campus. Top athletes in the country often receive numerous invitations to workout at universities in which they are met with smiling coaches, staff, and players. These athletes are shown a great time and pitched with various reasons why they should join the university’s athletic program. The anticipation increases as the deadline for a prospect to sign their commitment approaches. The decision is kept a secret as press and recruiters try to find ways to see where the student is leaning towards. Signing day arrives and the student chooses the university they want to attend.

This may be a dream for many students while they are in high school but the reality is that not everyone is going to play sports at the collegiate or professional level. Students that do well academically should receive the same media attention and hype as student athletes. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, recognized the need to celebrate students receiving admittance into college by initiating the National Signing Day. In 2014, Mrs. Obama launched the Reach Higher Initiative. The Reach Higher initiative aims to stimulate awareness and encouragement for students to aspire to enter into a postsecondary institution after high school (Reach Higher, 2017). Schools all over the country participate in the College Signing Celebration that is modeled after the National College Signing day for NCAA prospects.

College-Going School Culture

So how do we hype our students up about going to college? How do we maintain that hype all school year in anticipation for high school graduates going to college? Hosting a College Signing Day Celebration is a way to dedicate at least one week full of events to celebrate the hardwork of the graduating class. The school should treat their students just like they would if there was a top athletic prospect enrolled at their school. Invite the parents, community members, political figures, and media and other news, outlets to cover this event at your school. This should be a big event that extends beyond the student body, faculty and staff. The anticipation for all of the high school seniors to announce their college decisions on College Signing Day is fun and contagious. Students will have to keep their decisions a secret while the rest of the campus is curious of their top picks that they have been admitted to.

College Signing Day Celebrations should not be just a pep rally in which school spirit rises for a week or two leading up to the event. College Signing Day Celebrations should be the culminating event of the year in which preparation from both students and staff are involved. Students will be tasked with being admitted into colleges, applying for scholarships, and participating in college fairs on campus. The staff will be tasked with providing guidance to colleges and careers, inviting college/university representatives to speak to students, college visits, and SAT/ACT preparation. Throughout the year, students must be looking forward to the College Signing Day Celebration as a school tradition and moment of accomplishments.

Preparation and Planning

Set a date. Whether you school is rural, urban, or suburban a College Signing Day Celebration is accessible. Even if your school currently has a predominate population of first-generation college students and limited-income students, this event is still an option. It does however, mean that the school needs to recognize that this event should be supported by the entire faculty and staff. It cannot be left to a small group of individuals. The day can be set sometime in May in which all graduating seniors have been admitted into a postsecondary institution.

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Collegiality. Everyone can play a role in hyping the students up for college. Teachers should be permitted to wear their alma mater college gear and have open conversations about their college experiences. They can also post their college information and diplomas in their classroom. Administration should seek funds to provide local college campus visits to students. In addition, they can lead the school with ensuring the faculty and staff are supported with the necessary resources. This may mean that the staff meetings include college signing day planning and discussions. Allow release time for students to apply to colleges and scholarships. Dedicate at least one professional in-service day for college admissions and financial aid advising during the school year. This will be a great opportunity for teachers to become more comfortable with helping students apply to colleges and not referring any questions about college to the school counselors. Counselors and college/career advisors will need to make contact with students and parents about college and career planning.

The atmosphere. When a visitor walks into the school building, what are some of the first things they will notice? Is there a countdown clock in the main hall for College Signing Day? Are the hallways lined with college and university pennants? What about the classrooms? The overall atmosphere of the school should express that this high school supports an environment in which all students see college as an option. A visitor should recognize that students are introduced to traditional 4 year, 2 year, and vocational schools as options for after high school. They should look into any classroom and get the vibe that it supports going on and beyond.

The event. As mentioned before, the College Signing Day Celebration is just the tip of the iceberg to an energized school that supports student academic success and post high school aspirations. Plan a different activity each day the week of the celebration to continue the hype of the event. Invite parents and the community to support this event. Students should come dressed in college swag as well as the school community. On the day of the event:

  • Host an assembly event at your school in which you have a guest speaker provide a motivational message about various pathways after high school such as two and four year colleges.
  • Invite college admissions representatives and mascots from various colleges.
  • Seek any local businesses that may be willing to present a scholarship to students.
  • Encourage everyone to wear collegiate gear, take lots of pictures, and thank all participants and presenters.

Benefits of the College Signing Day Celebration

Just like a top athlete receives multiple offers for full ride scholarships, students displaying academic excellence can receive multiple offers. High schools have the opportunity to showcase students by supporting the students making the decision to commit to a college. In addition, the idea of applying to more colleges may spread amongst the student body increasing the number of student application and admittance into college. Furthermore, students are now more likely to matriculate into a postsecondary institution because they have been admitted into college.

College Signing Day events should not be reserved for the top academic students at the school. All graduating seniors should participate in this event requiring everyone to apply to at least one college. Students may decide to start off at a community college first and others may elect to attend a four year institution after high school. These moments should be celebrated regardless of the status of the institution the student decides to attend. This event supports an overall college-going school culture in which students, faculty, and staff support the idea of preparation for college.

Written by Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., associate director at Idaho State University, TRIO Access and Opportunities Program.

Reference: Reach Higher (2017). College Signing Day Toolkit

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