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College Mentoring Program for At-Risk Students Shows Benefits

Low-income students who participated in an individualized coaching program that helped them navigate through the college-application process were more likely to enroll in selective colleges and four-year institutions, new research shows.

Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, conducted a three-year randomized, controlled trial of the Minnesota-based College Possible  program, and found a significant difference in where students applied and enrolled among the students served. The evaluation appeared in a working paper released Wednesday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

While overall enrollment figures for the treatment group (College Possible students) and the control group were about the same, there was a difference in where they chose to go to school.

About 45 percent of students in College Possible enrolled in a four-year college and 19 percent in a two-year college. Among their peers who weren't part of the program, 34 percent decided on a four-year college and 30 percent enrolled at a two-year institution. Students who received the coaching were also more likely to attend a "competitive" college than those in the control group, the report shows.

"That's a pretty big gain," said Avery in a conference call with reporters. "The best way to get to a B.A. is to start in a 4-year college and in a more selective college."

Based on previous research, the report anticipates the enrollment patterns will translate into long-run differences in improved educational attainment and in earnings for those who received College Possible support.

Organization Targets First-Generation College Students

College Possible is a nonprofit organization, formerly known as Admission Possible, that provides a free after-school program for high school juniors and seniors who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and need extra guidance in applying for college. Most are students of color and would be first-generation college students. Founded in 2000, the organization serves 15,000 students in 42 high schools in Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin, including students in regular and charter public schools, as well as private schools. College Possible plans to expand to 10 more locations by 2020.

The program participants receive test-prep for the SAT and ACT (although this evaluation found little effect of the program on ACT performance). Students are also are paired with a coach or mentor who provides information on college admissions, financial aid, and the application process.

The coaches are AmeriCorp volunteers, which helps keep the costs of the program low, said Jim McCorkell, founder and chief executive officer of College Possible, on the call today. "The model hinges on making sure low-income youth in high school and college have a caring adult to guide them," he said. Because it leverages national service volunteers, the cost of the program is about one-seventh that of similiar federally-funded services, he added.

In all, each high school student receives 320 hours of direct service support and is required to perform eight hours of community service. While there is no charge to the participating high schools, they do provide the program with space for classoom lessons and coaching sessions.

The trial included students from eight high schools affiliated with College Possible. At the time of the report, students were one year out of high school.

In the push to boost the country's college-completion rate, College Possible is one of a growing number of nonprofits stepping in to support at-risk in the college-search process.

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