How Can States Increase Their College Attendance Rates?

The United States used to lead the world in adult postsecondary attainment, but has gradually slipped to 12th. To help the U.S. regain its former position as a world leader in adult postsecondary attainment rates, many states have set aggressive postsecondary completion or attainment goals over the past several years.

To achieve these goals, states are adding a variety of ingredients into the recipe to get more youth and adults into and through postsecondary programs. But notably absent from the “cookbook” in most states are dedicated efforts to improve secondary students’ access to high-quality college counseling. A December, 2014 report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS) identifies state approaches that may not reap the hoped-for gains in college-going and highlights recent research pointing to new, successful approaches to increase college-going rates – and a few states implementing promising efforts.

Creating online postsecondary information portals and requiring individual learning plans for all high school students are only two approaches many states are taking to support college counseling. However, due to lack of access to computers and smartphones, and lower Internet use rates among rural and disadvantaged populations, web portals may not reach their intended audiences. More so, both web portals and individual learning plans may not provide the level of guidance and support low-income and first-generation college goers indicate they need.[1]

An analysis of federal data tells us that simply hiring more counselors in high schools will not in and of itself increase the percentage of students who enter college. An analysis of federal data published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) suggests that, while counselors with caseloads of 250 or fewer students were more likely to be found in high schools with higher college-going rates, other, less-costly attributes were found in high schools sending more kids to college. These include:

  • Counselors’ time: 56 percent of counselors in high schools with high college-going rates reported spending 21-50 percent of their time helping students with college readiness, selection, and applications. Seventeen percent of counselors in these high college-going high schools spent more than 50 percent of their time on these tasks. In comparison, just one in four of counselors in high schools with low-college going rates spent more than 20 percent of their time on college readiness, selection and application activities.
  • Counselors’ priorities: It’s not just how counselors allot their time that matters. Counselors’ professional goals set apart high schools with high college-going rates: 72 percent of counselors in high schools with high college-going rates emphasized helping students prepare for postsecondary education as their top priority. Just 32 percent counselors in high schools with low college-going rates held students’ postsecondary preparation as their number one priority.
  • Counselors’ attitudes: Counselors in high schools with high college-going rates were 27 percent more likely than those in low college-going high schools to strongly disagree with the notion that counselors in their school “have given up on some students.”

Recent research points to relatively low-cost approaches that, taken to scale, could substantially improve the percentage of traditionally underserved students who enter college. These approaches include:

  • Brief informational videos: Students in a 2012 study in low-income high schools in Toronto were invited to participate in two online surveys. The first survey asked students about their demographic background, grades, educational aspirations, and knowledge of their eligibility for financial aid. Half the students taking the first survey were randomly selected to watch a short video that suggested “many students who are unsure about post-secondary education may overestimate cost or not realize financial aid eligibility.” The video also presented the mean earnings differences for 35-year-old Torontonians with various levels of educational attainment. All students were invited to take a second survey a few weeks later. The researchers found that watching the three-minute video increased students’ anticipated return on investment from postsecondary education, and decreased their likelihood of reporting tuition/costs as a primary factor in not pursuing postsecondary education.
  • College coaching: Research in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) found that, despite district-wide emphasis on college enrollment, students in high schools with a college coach were more likely to complete the FAFSA and/or three or more college applications. Students in “coach schools” were also more likely to attend college, and 24 percent more likely to matriculate in a less-selective four-year college (as opposed to a two-year college, where CPS students had lower completion rates). These effects were even greater for Latino students, students from low-income families, and non-AP students.
  • Texting: “Summer melt” refers to when college-intending high school seniors fail to matriculate in postsecondary education the fall after graduating high school. Given the research showing that teens are significantly more likely to text than use email or talk on the phone, coupled with the low cost of sending text messages, using texts to remind (and offer help to) recent high school graduates to complete necessary steps seems a logical approach to reducing summer melt. A 2013 research study suggests that texting campaigns, tied to individualized supports as needed from college advisors, may be a particularly impactful approach for students with moderate GPAs, who may have been overlooked by counseling staff in their high schools.

States are beginning to adopt encouraging policy approaches to enhance college counseling. Colorado’s School Counselors Corps Grant Program provides competitive grants to applicant districts, in part to help with college search, application and financial aid processes. The most recent program report shows modest benefits to grantee schools in terms of FAFSA completion and postsecondary matriculation rates.

Arkansas legislation enacted in 2013 created the College and Careers Counseling Program to position trained counselors, primarily in lower-income counties, to assist middle and high school students with a variety of career exploration and college guidance activities.

And based largely on the aforementioned research on texting campaigns to reduce summer melt, initiatives are underway in West Virginia, Delaware, and Minnesota to use texting to help students successfully make the transition from high school to college.

Jennifer Zinth directs the High School Policy Center and STEM Policy Center at the Education Commission of the States (ECS). Contact Jennifer at jzinth@ecs.org or 303.299.3689.


[1] National Postsecondary Education Cooperative. Deciding on Postsecondary Education: Final Report (NPEC 2008–850), prepared by Keith MacAllum, Denise M. Glover, Barbara Queen, and Angela Riggs. Washington, DC: 2007. (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2008/2008850.pdf

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