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Mentors Guide High School Students Through College Process

Educators and policymakers are anxious for answers to "what works" when it comes to getting more students into college. One low-cost intervention that seems to pay off: Pairing high school students with college mentors to help them through the application process.

Researchers who did randomized experiments of college coaching and support programs in Los Angeles and New Hampshire found promising results that they shared Thursday in Washington at the spring conference of Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (SREE).

In 2005-06, the SOURCE program matched college students from the University of California Los Angeles with 2,500 high school juniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District to navigate through the college and financial aid application process together. The experiment was to test an affordable intervention for students who are on track for college but might lack the logistical advice, said Johnnes Bos, vice president of education, human development and the workforce at the American Institutes for Research in San Mateo, California, who led the experiment. The goal was to narrow the gap between lower-income and high-income students when it comes to college access.

With little more than nine contact hours between the mentor and student—some in person, some by phone or e-mail—the SOURCE program was able to show it did make a positive difference in the percentages of students taking the SAT, applying to four-year colleges, and receiving scholarships compared to the control group. Once in college, the persistence rates were also better for the SOURCE participants compared to those who were not in the program.

The cost: $1,000 per student.

Part of what made the program work, said Bos, was that the mentors were extensively trained and paid well—receiving bonuses for getting their students past certain milestones. Unlike high school counselors who manage hundred of students, each college mentor was assigned just 15 students. Bos acknowledges that the success of the program can be attributed, in part, to the motivation of the students who were self-selected into the program.

Bucking the notion that early intervention is the only way to make a difference, a program in New Hampshire stepped in midway through the senior year to nudge high school students into the college process.

Bruce Sacerdote, professor of economics from Dartmouth College, presented the findings of an experiment to raise the college-going rate of students "on the margin" of not going to college—often due to procrastinating, low parental support,.and being intimidated by the process. His research team asked counselors for the names of students who had expressed an interest in college but had taken few steps to get there. Of those asked to be in the program, 60 percent agreed to participate.

Dartmouth College students met once a week with the high school seniors for up to five weeks in sessions lasting from 1 ½ to 4 hours. The mentors (who were paid $15 per hour) helped the students fill out application and financial aid forms, sign up for the SAT, and arrange for transcripts to be mailed out.

The coaching was free to the students and the program covered the cost of the college application fees. It also gave the students who successfully participated in the program a $100 cash bonus at the end which, interestingly, Sacerdote said was not a factor for many. Of those who participated, 98 percent applied to college.

Compared to the control group, the experiment revealed those who had Dartmouth coaches were more likely to enroll in a four-year college than those who did not. The impact was greatest in the poorest high school where counselors are stretched thin and not equipped to guide students through the process into higher education, said Sacerdote.

The cost of this intervention: Also, $1,000 per student.

Unlike the L.A. study, this experiment has yet to follow-up with the students to see if they stay in college.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about online systems aimed at streamlining the college-readiness process. With the increased push for college but no more counselors on the horizon to help guide students, it's Interesting to see some solid evidence of interventions that hold promise to address this problem.

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