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Study: Program Steps In Where Counselors Leave Off

Earlier this month, you read in this space about a Public Agenda report that highlighted what happens to high school students when their guidance counselors are too overworked to give them sound advice about college.

Now comes some findings on a program that was designed to help address that very problem. How's that for a fast turn around?

At the annual meeting this month of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness, a group of California researchers shared some early results from their evaluation of a Los Angeles-based program that links high school juniors from low-income communities to college-student mentors. Through the program, which is known as Student Outreach for College Enrollment, or SOURCE, college students meet regularly with their mentees to advise them about college choices, SAT-taking, financial-aid deadlines, and other things they need to know about negotiating the road to higher education. Researchers helped design the program, which is run by a Los Angeles group called EdBoost.

"Often kids who on paper qualify for college don't go," said Jacqueline Berman of Berkeley Policy Associates. She's conducting the federally funded evaluation with Johannes Bos of the American Institutes for Research. "They think college is expensive and they don't know how to apply for financial aid or their parents never went to college so they don't know either."

For their study, the researchers focused on 2,500 juniors with grade point averages of 2.5 or higher from high schools with high concentrations of students from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school meals. Nearly 1,500 of those students were randomly assigned to trained program mentors and the remainder learned about college the usual way, through parents or high school guidance counselors. (The program also had a component through which students could get free help from H&R Block in filling out federal financial-aid forms, but few families took up that offer.)

The researchers checked back with the students when they were old enough to be finishing their freshman year of college and verified their responses though the National Student Clearinghouse.

What they found was, although the program did not seem to have much of an effect on students' high school grades or GPAs, it did lead to small, but significant, increases in other important ways. It increased the percentages of students taking SAT tests; enrolling in the University of California or California State University; completing federal financial-aid forms; and getting grants and scholarships.

Perhaps more important, some of the larger increases came among students whose parents did not attend college or whose families spoke Spanish at home.

To put the results in perspective, Berman suggests comparing them with those for Upward Bound, another college-preparation program for disadvantaged high school students. She said sudies of that program suggest that it yields similar percentage-point increases in college-going rates—but at an annual cost that is four times higher than that of the SOURCE program.

This study is not complete yet, though. The researchers still plan to finish verifying their data through the National Student Clearinghouse and to check back with students again to find out whether they are staying in college. But the results so far, Berman says, are pretty encouraging.

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