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New Approach to College Prep for Low-Income Students Called For

Students are more than twice as likely to attend and complete college if they come from a wealthy family compared with a low-income household.

Researchers gathered for a discussion on the issue at the Brookings Institution in Washington Tuesday said if the country is committed to equity in education, more should be done to support disadvantaged students, and the current federal programs designed to help are not effective.

In a policy brief, Time for a Change: A New Federal Strategy to Prepare Disadvantaged Students for College, co-authors Ron Haskins and Cecilia Rouse, propose that the college-prep TRIO programs, such as Upward Bound and Talent Search, along with GEAR UP be folded into a single grant program and be subjected to more rigorous evaluation.

These intervention programs use a mixture of instruction, tutoring, and counseling to prepare at-risk students for college and cost about $1 billion a year. A close review of these programs shows most had little detectable impact on college-going rates and completion, except for the Upward Bound Math-Science program, according to the brief.

"Half a century and billions of dollars after these federal college-preparation programs began, we are left with mostly failed programs interspersed with modest successes," the paper says. There are indications that in some programs summer learning, mentoring, tutoring, and parent involvement make a difference in college enrollment. "These may be the threads from which we can begin to weave together a new kind of intervention programs," the authors write.

Haskins, a senior fellow and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, said the enormous difference in college success by income is a big problem not only for students but also for society. While 79 percent of students from families in the top income tier enroll in college, just 34 percent of adult children in the lowest income brackets do so. The completion rate for students from low-income backgrounds is about 11 percent, while 53 percent of the wealthiest students earn a degree,the researchers note.

Students need better academic preparation and the best hope, by far, is in improved K-12 education, but the wait for change will be long, said Haskins. In the meantime, he suggests more be done to improve school counseling and support programs.

Building on the Obama administration's penchant for competitive grant programs, the paper proposes the creation of a new competition to encourage research and demonstration projects that receive grant money based on their ability to affect real outcomes of increasing enrollment and graduation rates for low-income students.

"I know it's controversial," said Haskins. "But to keep the money, programs have to continue to be effective."

Rouse, an economist from Princeton University, said while the move to evidence-based program funding may be hard, it is necessary to encourage innovation. She added that evidence can only be part of the decision to fund programs, and the aim is to generate more efficiency, but not at the price of quality.

Panelist Andrea Venezia from California State University in Sacramento agreed that stronger outcomes are needed from the federal college-prep programs, but cautioned that many of the grantees have small staffs and limited resources to provide such high-level evidence. Rather than dismantling the TRIO network, she suggested supporting those programs that show glimmers of success and to build on those.

Also, Venezia discussed the need to help students with more than academics and also focus on the noncognitive skills so they are ready to learn and are able to navigate the college landscape.

Along with examining the $1 billion college-prep programs, the panelists said, reform efforts should also be focused on the Pell Grant program, which provides nearly $36 billion annually in federal support for low-income students in college.

The brief appears in the Spring 2013 issue of the journal The Future of Children.

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