Navigating the rocky road to higher education

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In this first blog of our three-part series on college access, we review the major challenges that aspiring students face on the road to college and introduce findings from randomized evaluations that highlight evidence-based interventions to address these barriers. In part two of the series, we explore a hands-on guide that outlines cost-effective, evidence-based solutions to help more students successfully apply, enroll, and graduate from college. In part three, two first-generation college students share their own experiences navigating the college application process.

A college education can be a powerful tool for economic mobility. A wide range of research shows that college graduates achieve higher earnings, experience lower rates of unemployment, and are even in better health.

However, there are many barriers to a college education, and there are significant disparities in college enrollment by income level. As of 2016, the college-going rate for high-income high school students is 16 percentage points higher than students from low-income households.

What are some obstacles to college enrollment, and what can policymakers do to help?

While the benefits of a college education are well-documented, even the initial steps on the journey to a degree can be daunting. Students face challenges in choosing the right courses in high school, selecting colleges to apply to, completing the application process, applying for financial aid, and meeting matriculation requirements.

To start with, the college application process is quite complex, often demanding written applications, standardized tests, high school course requirements, letters of recommendation, interviews, and application fees. Those in need of financial aid must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the US federal financial aid college application that includes over ninety detailed questions. Once accepted into college, students must then complete matriculation and financial aid paperwork, register for classes, and pay fees and tuition.

Many students lack assistance in navigating this complex process. These challenges often compound for low-income students or students who are the first in their families to attend college. A multitude of programs across the country aim to address these barriers, but how can educators, administrators, and policymakers determine which approaches are actually effective?

At J-PAL North America, we summarized an emerging body of rigorous evidence in our recent Policy Bulletin, Simplifying Barriers Along the Bridge to College, which synthesizes findings from five randomized evaluations and highlights different strategies that are—and are not—successful in getting high school students to college.

Through this review, we found that relatively inexpensive interventions that make the application process easier and more convenient can substantially increase college enrollment and persistence. Our key takeaways from the evidence:

  • Programs that provided personalized guidance throughout the college application process had a positive impact. 
  • Semi-customized information, combined with fee waivers, influenced students’ decisions on where to apply to and enroll in college. 
  • Timely reminders with specific action steps, such as text messages about concrete tasks to do in the college application process, boosted enrollment.
  • Fee waivers were a key component of effective programs.

These interventions were often more beneficial for students with limited sources of support in navigating the college application process.

Not all programs to increase college access were found to be effective. Interventions that provided high school students with generic college information without personalized application assistance, for instance, did not increase college enrollment. Similarly, programs that shared information on financial aid without accompanying personalized assistance to fill out the FAFSA form did not increase FAFSA application submissions.

Making the jump from high school to college involves logistical and behavioral challenges that information alone often does not adequately address. This recent body of evidence is finally shedding some light on some promising approaches that do.

Read part two and part three of this blog series.

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