A Little Guidance Goes a Long Way Toward College Enrollment

November 6, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

Low-income high school students often lack the resources and guidance to apply to a four-year college or university. But when they receive direct assistance with college choices and applications, more students not only apply to four-year colleges, but also go on to enroll. However such customized assistance seems to have little or no effect on achievement test scores and overall enrollment in institutions of higher education.

That’s what Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy, writes in his Working Paper, “Evaluation of the College Possible Program: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial (pdf).”

College Possible is a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The program serves low-income high school students; offering them SAT and ACT test preparation services, college admission guidance, financial aid consulting, and help transitioning to college. Students apply to the program as sophomores and start the two-year, after-school curriculum as juniors.

“It is common while most high school seniors in large urban school districts indicate they plan to go to college, actual college enrollment rates in these districts are relatively low,” Avery writes. Through College Possible, “We estimate that the initial enrollment at four-year colleges increased by more than 15 percentage points.”

However, “the program appears to have increased four-year enrollment at the expense of enrollment at two-year colleges,” Avery says. Thus, having no effect on college enrollment overall.

In addition, Avery found little evidence of the program having any effect on ACT scores. He writes, “These findings suggest that some students [not in the program] may have solicited and received help from other sources after learning that they were not admitted to the College Possible program.”

“The underlying assumption of this program and other similar college access programs is that enrollment at four-year colleges is likely to promote completion of bachelor’s degrees,” Avery says. “So the fact that the program seems to induce students to switch from two-year colleges to four-year colleges can be anticipated to lead to an ultimate increase in the percentage of students who complete BA degrees.
In future research, we hope to track the progress of these students through college to see if this is the case.”

Christopher N. Avery is the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy. He teaches analytic courses in microeconomics and statistics, and studies rating and selection mechanisms, focusing on the college admissions system. In his current research, he studies college application patterns and college enrollment choices for high school students.

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Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy

Christopher Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette

“It is common while most high school seniors in large urban school districts indicate they plan to go to college, actual college enrollment rates in these districts are relatively low,” Avery writes.