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College-Advising Model Yields Results for Low-Income Students

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college advising.jpgGuest post by Kate Stoltzfus

A college-advising program based in Boston may be helping to bridge the college-graduation gap for low-income and first-generation students—and it's a model that researchers say should be replicated.

College-advising programs, which support high school students in decisions about higher education, have long been an attempt to boost college-completion rates for low-income students, who are much less likely to attend and graduate from college than their wealthier peers. States such as Minnesota, Tennessee, Colorado, and Indiana have beefed up their numbers of school counselors in light of evidence that one-on-one sessions to discuss financial aid or college triples students' chances of going to college. But until now, there hasn't been much proof of individual programs' effectiveness on student success. Does intensive advising really have a meaningful impact on students' college access and retention?

An ongoing study of a program called Bottom Line, released this month by the University of Virginia and Texas A&M University, says yes. Bottom Line currently works with around 7,000 high school and college students in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Worchester, Mass., to provide individual support starting the summer before students' senior year and continuing for up to six years after high school graduation. The average student's annual family income is around $21,000; 95 percent of those students are also the first in their families to attend college.

Researchers Benjamin L. Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, and Andrew Barr, an assistant professor of economics at Texas A&M University, followed two cohorts of Bottom Line students (with the exception of the Chicago program) who graduated from high school in 2014 and 2015. They tracked the students against a control group of students who applied, but didn't receive, the program's services.

A Focus on "Persistence"

Here's what the researchers found: Students who participated in the program during the study were 7 percentage points more likely to enroll in college (90 percent) than students who did not participate (83 percent). What's especially significant is that, while the effects of college advising often fade over time, students in Bottom Line were 10 percentage points more likely to remain in a four-year college for the first three semesters and 14 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in the second year after high school graduation.

"The problem isn't access to college," says Greg Johnson, interim chief executive officer for Bottom Line. "Even if students go, they aren't graduating. We set up a program that is focused on persistence."

Though students with lower high school GPAs and Hispanic students benefited somewhat more from the advising, with college enrollment increases at 10 percentage points and 8 percentage points respectively, the effects were otherwise consistent for all other students in the program regardless of gender, race, and income level. According to the program's data, 80 percent of the three most recent cohorts of students earned their degrees within six years.

Castleman and Barr estimate that if such a program were to be implemented more widely, the income gap in college enrollment gap could close by as much as one half. The results of the program were consistent even when students had different counselors, went to different schools, or participated in different states—suggesting that it's the kind of program that could be easily replicated.

Support for the Long Haul

The program's model has three things that stand out in particular, the researchers say:

  • One-on-one mentorship: Research shows that low-income students and first-generation college students have less access to the kinds of networks that can help them decide what to study. In the Bottom Line program, students met with counselors in person an average of 13 times (about 10 to 15 hours) between the end of their junior year and the summer before college. These meetings involved finding potential schools, completing applications, applying for financial aid and scholarships, and selecting programs that aligned with students' goals. Fifty-eight percent of participants indicated that the advising was "very important" in their application process, while only 21 percent of control students said that "staff at other college access programs" were very important. 
  • Cost-effective counseling: Counselors also play a key role in shaping school choice. Students are given guidance about applying to and attending colleges that are not only a good fit, but also won't saddle them with large debts. The program identifies "target institutions" that are both high-quality and affordable, and helps students balance those considerations. In the study, participants were 10 percent more likely to rank cost as one of the top two factors in deciding where to attend.
  • Continued advising in college: For those students who do attend target schools (about half choose to do so), Bottom Line provides support through campus visits for up to six years as students focus on career paths. First-year college students meet with counselors three to four times per semester, while older students meet with a counselor twice a semester. Counselors are there to advise students on balancing academic, work, social, and family commitments.

And what about the effectiveness of the counselors? The researchers found that 29 out of the 30 advisers they studied had a positive effect on students' enrollment and retention, signaling that the organization's leadership, staff recruitment and training, and organizational curriculum were making the difference, rather than individually strong counselors themselves.

"I do think that [high school] counselors are asked to do a lot in schools in terms of scheduling and behavior issues," says Castleman. "There's a positive movement toward counselors spending more time on college planning, but to the extent that their time remains spread thin, helping students identify whether there are programs like Bottom Line in their area—there are probably others that are equally well run and rigorous—that kind of connection for students is really valuable."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bottom Line

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