A culture of college

Eighty-six percent of the graduating class in 2011 at Edina High School went on to pursue a four-year degree. Senior Tierra Davis talks about what it’s like to be part of this majority as she looks ahead to graduating in the summer of 2012.

by Robert Downs

EDINA, Minn. âÄì When she has a lot of homework, high school senior Tierra Davis makes the five-minute drive past the local shopping mall to a place she can concentrate. In the summer itâÄôs Barnes and Noble, and in the winter itâÄôs Starbucks.

At that Starbucks just a few months ago, Tierra wrote the essay she sent with her application to the University of Wisconsin. Now sheâÄôs waiting for the reply letter postmarked from Madison âÄî an envelope that will determine the next four years of her life.

Tierra once said sheâÄôd like to âÄúget lost in the crowdâÄù and learn to be independent, meet new friends and get a change of scenery. ThatâÄôs why the University of Minnesota âÄî which in the past five years has welcomed 267 Edina High School graduates âÄî didnâÄôt sound like a fit.

But two weeks ago she received her acceptance letter from the Twin Cities and sheâÄôs second-guessing whether she wants to leave. In Madison she wouldnâÄôt be able to go to her church, where sheâÄôs been singing in the choir since middle school, and she wouldnâÄôt be able to stop home for dinners like her older sister.

Plus, with the large amount of students that go on to college from Edina, sheâÄôll probably run into an old classmate wherever she goes.

At Edina High School, 95 percent of the students go on to some sort of higher education institution, and theyâÄôre all grappling with a similar decision. With its boutique shops, country clubs and high home values, students from this affluent Minneapolis suburb are dialed in on a common goal: college.

And now, five acceptance letters later, Tierra is thinking twice about leaving the community that she refers to as âÄúThe Bubble.âÄù

A student-making machine

For Tierra, the question has never been if she would go to college, but where.

Like all Edina High School students, Tierra began meeting with counselors about college in ninth grade. With statistical tracking, personality evaluations and a course catalog designed for college entrance tests, a college-bound mindset comes early here.

âÄúIn the middle school it has already been engrained,âÄù said Bill Hicks, a guidance counselor at EHS. âÄúThose kids are all thinking that theyâÄôre going to college.âÄù

Tierra took the ACT twice and SAT once, worked through four AP classes, made 10 college visits and sent applications to six schools.

TierraâÄôs parents, who have a calendar with monthly guidelines of where a college applicant should be in the process, said the whole idea of college has changed in the past few years.

âÄúThe whole high school is set up to get you to college,âÄù said Michael Davis, TierraâÄôs dad.

In fact, so many kids had near-perfect GPAs at Edina that the school stopped ranking its students in 2007 âÄî with so many at the top of their graduating class, universities didnâÄôt get an accurate picture of where a student fell.

Instead, students now rank in 10-percent increments (90th percentile, 80th percentile, etc.).

Studies have shown that the greater proportion of classmates who attend four-year schools, the more likely a student will do the same. In that respect, Edina has strength in numbers: Of 620 seniors in last yearâÄôs graduating class, 86 percent went on to four-year schools.

âÄúEveryone that youâÄôre around, almost everyone, is going to go to college,âÄù said Michael Davis.

Various researchers have also identified factors that drive high school students toward or away from college, including family income, the education level of oneâÄôs parents and parental encouragement.

High schools throughout the state have for decades steered kids toward college, but the percentage of college-bound students in suburban schools is especially high.

Pop the bubble?

Michael and Phillomena Davis have been through the college search process twice before with TierraâÄôs older sisters, one of whom stayed close to home at the University of Minnesota.

Though her mom wouldnâÄôt mind seeing Tierra stick around, her father thinks that leaving her bubble might be a good idea.

âÄúI think it might be better that she get away. You really do have to create your own support system,âÄù Michael Davis said. âÄúIt forces you to expand your friend base.âÄù

TierraâÄôs family isnâÄôt among EdinaâÄôs richest âÄî her mother works at a country club instead of golfing there. Tierra stopped looking at the University of Michigan, at more than $40,000 a year in outstate tuition.

But for many Edina families, money may not be a problem.

The median home value in Edina is $408,200 âÄî almost twice the state average âÄî and 36 percent of last yearâÄôs EHS graduates chose private universities.

But Tierra is considering cost, and thatâÄôs why the University of Minnesota makes sense.

âÄúItâÄôs a good school and so much cheaper than anywhere else, with the education IâÄôd be getting,âÄù she said.

But when the letter from Madison arrives, she thinks she knows what sheâÄôll do if the first word is âÄúCongratulations.âÄù

âÄúI donâÄôt know; itâÄôs a big decision. I think IâÄôll end up there.âÄù