Getting More Students to College, Without Breaking School Budgets

 In Advertising and Marketing, Expert Tips & Info, Family, Psychology, Technology

A few years ago my daughter Nora, now eight years old, announced emphatically that she wanted to learn to play the piano. With the delight and naiveté of a first-time parent, I signed her up for lessons with visions of the joyful time we would spend together at the piano.

Now, if you are the parent of a young child who has even dabbled in music lessons, “joyful” may not be the first descriptor that comes to mind. The veneer of novelty quickly wore away, replaced by the realization that learning to play an instrument entails slow and incremental progress. Together, we have been at it for two years, and although I’m certain that we still devote more time to negotiating about practice than to actually playing, I am amazed at the difficulty of some of the pieces she’s learned.

Going from playing “Chopsticks” to a concerto takes not only a lot of work, but also many components: parental support, great teachers, regular practice, patience, and, of course, coordination between eyes, feet, hands, and brain.

In this way, it’s not that different from getting into college. In my research, I’ve investigated potential solutions to the barriers that students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, face in achieving postsecondary readiness, access, and ultimately success. One of my big takeaways: There’s no one big thing. There are, however, a host of medium-sized things.

In a recent review of the economic literature on college access, Judy Scott-Clayton and I detail, among other things, just how incremental the process of college access is and just how many barriers students can face all along the way. Academic readiness requires students to select (or be selected into) the appropriate courses, starting in middle school. Accessing critical financial aid requires jumping through the many hoops of FAFSA forms. When students have questions, they need to know where to go for help and work up the gumption to ask for it.

For school systems looking to innovate and improve outcomes in the space of college readiness and access, it might be reasonable to view staff resources as a limiting constraint. While the American School Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor caseload of 250:1, today’s typical public school counselor manages a caseload that is more than twice as large. And yet I know that many public schools do not have the budgets to hire additional staff. So what are some other options?

One I regularly return to is the better use of data to understand where students are and should be. For example, because math skills are built incrementally over time, being ready for college-level mathematics can depend on course-placement decisions as early as the sixth grade. Yet national patterns tell us that middle schoolers who have the potential to succeed in a college-preparatory track are often overlooked; it’s disproportionately true for black children, Hispanic children, and children from low-income households. In response to this issue, the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina recently implemented a course assignment policy whereby the district uses prior standardized test performance to make more systematic math course placements. As colleagues and I show, this policy not only placed more students on a college-preparatory math track beginning in middle school, but it also reduced the relationship between course place and student characteristics such as race and income.

Simple technological solutions can also point students in the right direction and give support to those who need it. We all know that filling out complicated FAFSA forms is a monumental hurdle to getting financial aid for college. One step in the right direction is the federal government’s effort to provide U.S. high schools with information on their students’ FAFSA filing status: Have their students submitted the FAFSA? Completed it? Are they required to complete the additional reporting steps known as income verification? Yet while this information sharing is necessary, it’s not enough if taking action depends on the effort of an already overtaxed school staff. To help school systems make better use of the information, Ben Castleman and I collaborated last year with a set of Texas school districts and technology provider OneLogos Education Solutions to devise a text messaging system to remind students about the importance of the FAFSA and to provide personalized feedback on where they are in the process. The system transformed data into action without requiring counselors to sift through unwieldy spreadsheets of student information or individually nag students to keep slogging through the forms. So far we’ve seen large improvements in timely FAFSA filings as a result.

An important feature of the text-based outreach is that it both pushed messages out to students and prompted students to ask questions when they needed help by using a mode of communication (texting) that is second nature for today’s young people. In the FAFSA intervention, in addition to other college transition efforts that we have designed and implemented, text messaging represents an efficient way to open lines of communication and give support to those who need it.

Importantly, while the Texas effort required school counselors to monitor and respond to students’ incoming communications, use of staff time is not necessarily a requirement. In another state-wide effort in Delaware last year, similar text-based communication with high school seniors and their parents was staffed primarily by graduate student volunteers at the University of Delaware. Therefore, a school system truly stretched to the breaking point could look to identify and mobilize volunteer workers as a possible solution.

Like developing musical ability, preparing for and getting into college is a complex, step-by-step process that requires attention and persistence. There’s no quick fix or silver bullet that schools can implement to make more of their students college-ready. But making better use of the data and technology available could help budget-constrained schools make little-by-little progress that adds up to a lot.

Lindsay Page is an assistant professor of research methodology and a research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

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