Improving College Access and Success

IPR panelists discuss cost-effective interventions to boost low-income enrollment


Panelists (from left) Bridget Terry Long, Sarah Turner, and James Rosenbaum take questions from the audience at the Capitol Hill research briefing.

Only about half of low-income high school seniors go to college the fall after they graduate, compared with nearly 85 percent of high-income seniors. When they do, more than half enroll in two-year colleges, even though better outcomes are more often associated with four-year degrees. Many do not apply to four-year colleges, as recent research shows, often stumped by seemingly negligible barriers, such as a lack of information.

David Figlio

“We know that the value of higher education has never been more important than it is today, and the challenges associated with success are also high and daunting,” said IPR Director David Figlio in welcoming the nearly 100 staffers, researchers, academics, and journalists to IPR’s May 6 policy research briefing on Capitol Hill. He also thanked the briefing’s two congressional co-sponsors, Illinois representatives Mike Quigley (D–5th) and Aaron Schock (R–18th).

“There are many possible solutions, many possible challenges as well,” he continued, noting that the three panelists—IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum, and economists Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia and Harvard’s Bridget Terry Long—were “proposing solutions that don’t break the bank and can appeal to both sides of the aisle.”

College Coaches

Low-income students are less likely to attend college and when they do, most typically go to two-year colleges with generally “terrible” degree-completion rates, said Rosenbaum. In addition to facing multiple economic and social barriers, most of these students often run into some barriers that could be easily addressed, including a fairly basic one.

“Students don’t understand college,” Rosenbaum said.

James Rosenbaum

Through his research, Rosenbaum has uncovered a multitude of high school students’ misinformation about four-year colleges. They run from believing they must have all four years of tuition saved up before starting their degree to thinking they can only get federal financial aid if one of their parents is unemployed.

The solution, like the problem, Rosenbaum continued, is relatively simple to address—access to information. Yet the seemingly obvious mechanism, using high school guidance counselors, is not ideal. The national student-to-counselor ratio is 475 to 1, with counselors also juggling other priorities. No wonder, perhaps, that nearly 60 percent of counselors spend only a quarter of their time on college advising, he underscored.

Implementing a “college coaching” program, such as the one launched by Chicago Public Schools in 2004, is a recent response to address the issue. In the CPS program, 12 nonselective Chicago high schools each got a dedicated coach and space for college advising. The objective was to improve college enrollment for all students and to focus on encouraging more disadvantaged students to apply to four-year colleges.

Rosenbaum has studied the CPS coaching program and nearly 45,000 students in 58 schools over four years with several IPR graduate research assistants. They employed data from school records, senior “exit” interviews, and ethnographic observations. After comparing high schools with coaching programs to those without, the researchers controlled for a variety of school and student attributes. The coaches led to some gains in attending college. Moreover, their data clearly show that for low-income students who attend college, coaches increase the numbers of those enrolling in less selective four-year colleges versus two-year colleges by nearly 10 percent.

According to Rosenbaum, the coaching program works, especially for students facing bigger disadvantages, because it increases their number of college-going actions, including applying to more colleges and filling out the federal student financial aid form, or FAFSA. The coaches also pass on crucial life skills from how to dress for a meeting with college recruiters to why using a gang name in an email address is not a good idea when corresponding with colleges. He also points to the coaches’ “parent-like nagging” as an important but “undervalued” attribute that helps the students.

“[The coaches] tell them all kinds of information about colleges that students don’t know,” Rosenbaum said.

College Choices

“Information,” Turner began, “can be a powerful tool for policy,” and can especially benefit a population of students who are rarely seen in more selective four-year universities—low-income, high achieving students.

Sarah Turner

“These are kids who are really likely to have a good shot at virtually any college in the country,” Turner continued. “If you ask somebody five years ago how many kids in this category that were low-income, people would have told you about 4,000 because that’s all the colleges and universities could find.”

Actually, there are 35,000 of them, she said. Most of who would be admitted if they applied, so why aren’t more of them in four-year colleges?

“They don’t apply,” Turner answered.

Most of these students are geographically dispersed, she continued. You can find one to two in suburban, rural, and small-town high schools spread across the nation. That makes it very expensive for colleges to “find” them, and it also means that some of the critical knowledge that lower-income students need to navigate the college application process is often absent.

After rejecting various explanations of why students might not apply, from “not trying” to not being able to thrive at more selective colleges, Turner said the answer seems to be a matter of information: Low-income students find it difficult to identify affordable, high-quality colleges and universities.

Turner and her research team tested this by using a detailed information intervention, as part of the Expanding College Opportunities Project. Information was tailored to each student’s location, family income, and achievement level. The researchers also included details about the net cost of going to college and facts about local and national universities, including graduation rates. They also offered easily accessible fee waivers to defray application costs because low-income students and their families were often reluctant to ask to have fees waived, which can run from $600 to $800 if a student applies to the recommended “portfolio” of eight schools.

“For kids from low-income families, you could actually imagine a parent saying ‘No, [just] pick one,’ ” Turner said.

Overall, the researchers find that low-income students in the experimental group were more likely to apply to four or more colleges, and 50 percent more likely to apply to a college that their peers had applied to. They also more frequently chose to attend colleges with higher graduation rates and higher instructional funding.

“Such interventions can have a big impact on student choice,” Turner concluded, pointing to a cost of $6 per packet. “The cool thing is that they’re scalable, sustainable, and very low-cost.”

College Information and Assistance

More people are going to college than ever before, Long said, noting an increase of around 25 percent since 1975. Yet despite spending billions of dollars and creating different types of financial and academic programs, “We can see that the gap between the low-income and high-income groups really hasn’t closed,” Long said. “What is keeping kids out of college?”

Bridget Terry Long

In thinking about the issue, Long noticed that the processes to get into college were very complex. To get financial aid, you have to fill out a FAFSA; to avoid remediation, you need to take the right courses.

“The students need to comprehend really complicated information, and they have to do all the right things, in the right order,” she said. Breaking down the “college decision pipeline,” from sophomore to senior year, involves a multitude of decisions—from deciding which classes to take to how to get to a testing site.

Many studies have pointed to the problem of information, leading to a “huge push” to give out information. The problem with this, Long said, is that students are then given “everything that’s out there” without any help to discern which facts might be most salient to their situation.

“The key question I’ve been thinking about,” she asked, “is when is information enough” and how should it be presented?

Long and her colleagues designed a randomized experiment in partnership with H&R Block. Families were invited to complete their tax forms and their FAFSA forms at the same time. For those families in the treatment group making less than $45,000 and thus PELL Grant eligible, they were then asked if they would like to learn more about how to finance higher education.

If they said yes, they were given an on-the-spot estimate of their federal and state aid eligibility and the net student cost for four state universities. The FAFSA was filled out electronically and sent directly to the Department of Education. It took an average of eight minutes to complete the entire process.

“There were a lot of opportunities to really streamline the process, and we found [those eight minutes] had huge effects,” Long said.

Among graduating high school seniors in families who had an average of $76 in their checking accounts, the numbers of those going to college went up to 34 percent, as compared with 27 percent in the control group. Three years out, these students seem to be persisting in college—the treatment group was 8 percentage points more likely to remain enrolled in college two years in a row in comparison to the control group.

In another information experiment involving 529 college plans, Long and a colleague tested if families would save more for college. Their findings reveal that just providing information and streamlined assistance were not enough. The only participants to open accounts were those in a treatment group that received information, assistance, and the $50 opening deposit for an account. Perhaps most interesting, Long continued, is that one-third of the group that opened accounts also went on to set up automatic contributions without any further assistance.

“Information is not always going to be enough,” Long said, especially when it comes to more complex processes. “Proactive research and outreach are always going to be absolutely necessary.”

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Colleges

Following the presentations, audience members asked the panelists a wide variety of questions, including one from a congressional staffer about the emphasis on four-year colleges and whether policies for two-year community colleges should get a closer look given that they seem to be a more affordable option for low-income families.

Long responded that college match is an important element of the process and that it is not necessarily about favoring one type over the other. Rather, families tend to make better decisions about what to do if they are fully informed about their options.

Rosenbaum added that one needs to be careful when looking at colleges—and in particular two-year colleges—as there is great variation in completion rates and earnings and employment rates for different programs within the same institutions.

Figlio, an expert on K–12 accountability, noted that the question also raised the issues of ratings and accountability, a hotly debated topic in education. As challenging as it is “to get K-12 accountability right,” he said, it is “a higher order of magnitude still” for higher education due to all the different possibilities for outcomes, program types, etc.

“I think it’s absolutely important that we try our hardest to get those types of policies right,” Figlio concluded, “so we’re providing the right information to people to support all those different types of choices they might be making."

James Rosenbaum is an IPR fellow and professor of education and social policy and of sociology at Northwestern University. Sarah Turner is University Professor of Economics and Education at the University of Virginia. Bridget Terry Long is Academic Dean and Xander Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. David Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University, and IPR director.