College bound: A culture of college in Edina

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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 it’s Barnes and Noble, and in the winter it’s Starbucks.

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

Tierra once said she’d like to “get lost in the crowd” and learn to be independent, meet new friends and get a change of scenery. That’s why the University of Minnesota — which in the past five years has welcomed 267 Edina High School graduates — didn’t sound like a fit.

But two weeks ago she received her acceptance letter from the Twin Cities and she’s second-guessing whether she wants to leave. In Madison she wouldn’t be able to go to her church, where she’s been singing in the choir since middle school, and she wouldn’t 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, she’ll 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 they’re 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 “The Bubble.”

Teenagers file into the halls after the last bell of the day Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011 at Edina High School. Eighty-six percent of the 2011 graduating class went on to pursue a four-year education. (Photos by Joe Michaud-Scorza)

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.

“In the middle school it has already been engrained,” said Bill Hicks, a guidance counselor at EHS. “Those kids are all thinking that they’re going to college.”

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

Tierra’s 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.

“The whole high school is set up to get you to college,” said Michael Davis, Tierra’s dad.

In fact, so many kids had near-perfect GPAs at Edina that the school stopped ranking its students in 2007 — with so many at the top of their graduating class, universities didn’t 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 year’s graduating class, 86 percent went on to four-year schools.

“Everyone that you’re around, almost everyone, is going to go to college,” 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 one’s 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 Tierra’s older sisters, one of whom stayed close to home at the University of Minnesota.

Though her mom wouldn’t mind seeing Tierra stick around, her father thinks that leaving her bubble might be a good idea.

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

Tierra’s family isn’t among Edina’s richest — 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.

High School senior Tierra Davis laughs at her teacher’s joke during math class Thursday, November 3 at Edina High School. Davis is one of a large majority of seniors that will go on to pursue a four-year degree after graduation.

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

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

But Tierra is considering cost, and that’s why the University of Minnesota makes sense.

“It’s a good school and so much cheaper than anywhere else, with the education I’d be getting,” she said.

But when the letter from Madison arrives, she thinks she knows what she’ll do if the first word is “Congratulations.”

“I don’t know; it’s a big decision. I think I’ll end up there.”

College Bound is a series about the varied backgrounds of high school seniors around state that have the University of Minnesota in their plans. Feb. 2 will feature a young woman from north Minneapolis.