NORTH ADAMS - Access to higher education is a top aspiration in the United States, but the pathways are not always equitable.

For example, David Edwards, a 2009 American Studies graduate from Williams College, now works as a college counselor with Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). The nonprofit focuses on providing free support and education for povertystricken youth and families living in central Harlem, N.Y.

According to Edwards, one of the school districts HCZ is working with has only one guidance counselor for students in grades 6 through 12.

"Our students need resources," Edwards said. "As often happens, people working with underserved populations tend to coddle them or dumb- down standards. The one thing I see with our kids is that they're always looking for a challenge, for you to raise the expectations for them."

That is why on Wednesday he and 40 high school juniors and seniors from HCZ embarked on a three- day college tour through New England, making their first stops at Bennington College in Vermont and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. They'll then continue on to visit Hampshire College, Western New England College, Boston University, Northeastern University and Boston College.

HCZ, the hardships its youths and families face, and its president and CEO Geoffrey Canada, are featured prominently in the muchhyped documentary film "Waiting for 'Superman,'" currently screening across the country.

While at MCLA, the HCZ students met with current MCLA seniors Jamal Ahamad, Shabori Burton, Ashton Darrett, and junior Nicolas Mendez, all who also come from urban East Coast neighborhoods. Most students on the panel are first-generation college attendees, and all said affordability was a major factor in determining whether they went to college. And they were all, in some way, recruited by MCLA.

The panelists said that because the college's outreach was integral to their experience, they're goal on Wednesday was to remind the students of the Harlem Children's Zone that they are not alone in the quest for higher education.

"A lot of students from inner cities are first generation college students. I was a first generation [college student] as well. We don't really have people telling us what's out there and showing us how to go to college. But these kids can really go somewhere. Life is not bound by your surroundings," said Darrett, a business administration major from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"But when people tell you where they are from, and they come from a situation like where you are, students can begin to think that maybe they can do it, that maybe it is possible for them to be successful too," said Burton, a Boston native studying sociology and social work.

As the panelists shared their stories, the HCZ students began to relate by cheering when they heard boroughs like "Brooklyn" and "the Bronx," and clapping and saying "ooh" as the college students named their major and listed the campus groups and activities they participate in.