The Power of College Counseling

Intense advising shifts the college choices of low-income students, study finds.

January 8, 2018
 
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Conventional wisdom holds that intensive college counseling will lead to better choices and higher college-going rates for low-income students. But as a new study (abstract available here) in the journal Education Finance and Policy says, there are relatively few studies that show, quantitatively, that the conventional wisdom is accurate.

The new study does so -- driving home just how important college counseling is to students from low-income families and in poorly resourced high schools.

The study tracks the impact of Bottom Line, a nonprofit in Boston that assigns counselors to provide intensive college counseling to selected high school seniors in the area. The students get one hour of personal counseling every two to three weeks, much more than school counselors are able to provide. To be eligible, students must have a grade point average of at least 2.5 and come from families that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The researchers used the grade requirement to create a control group, comparing program participants with those whose grades just missed the cutoff and who thus did not receive the counseling. Bottom Line maintains a list of "encouraged colleges" that it promotes, based both on cost (after financial aid is provided) and the odds of students succeeding.

The study found that those students who received the counseling were more likely -- by 52 percentage points -- to enroll in one of the program's recommended colleges. Further, they were less likely to enroll at community colleges and at four-year colleges that were not recommended by the program.

The counseling didn't appear to shift the odds that the students would attend college, but it had an impact on where the students enrolled. And because cost to students and families is one of the criteria used by Bottom Line in recommending colleges, the students were more likely to enroll at colleges where they would not face significant debt burdens.

The study said its results suggest that federal efforts such as the College Scorecard aren't enough to truly help low-income students with college choices. Actual advising is needed, the study found.

The authors of the study are Benjamin Castleman of the University of Virginia and Joshua Goodman of Harvard University.

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