How Effective Are College Access Programs?

The United States has slipped from being the world leader in 25-to-34 year-olds with post-secondary degrees in the 1980’s to ranking 12th today.[1]  There are a number of helpful avenues to prepare students for their journey into and through their postsecondary education, and college access programs are one option that provide services ranging from financial counseling to college visits and test preparation.

Preliminary findings from a recent meta-analysis of studies on college access programs suggest that college access programs increased post-secondary enrollment by an average of 12%. Effects of College Access Programs on College Readiness and Enrollment: A Meta-Analysis, a Campbell Collaboration review, sheds light on the effect of college access programs on both college enrollment and college readiness.[2] Study designs used to determine the impact of a college access program included randomized controlled trials (RCTs), quasi-experimental designs (QEDs) and regression discontinuity designs (RDDs). The Collaboration’s initial literature search uncovered 1175 studies, though due to the rigorous study design, only 14 studies met the selection criteria and provided enough detail in their results to be included in the meta-analysis.  

The meta-analysis included studies that examined 12 different college access programs.[3] There was a great deal of variability in terms of the programs’ target population, source of funding, major program components and study design. All 12 programs were geared towards low-socio economic status of students, but there was variation in terms of their academic performance. The vast majority of programs received federal funding, though a number received state, local, foundation and non-profit funding as well. Additionally, these 12 college access programs mainly had an academic enrichment and counseling aspect, though some included social integration, mentoring, personal enrichment, parental involvement or scholarships. Of the 12 programs, only four implemented pre-packaged whole school reform initiatives, whereas the remaining eight provided a variety of college access programs (mainly through outside agencies) that worked to supplement existing curriculum. In terms of the design, six of the 14 studies that met the selection criteria were randomized controlled trials, and eight were quasi-experimental designs.

The full search process is still occurring, but the preliminary findings revealed that college access programs had an eight percent average increase on the high school graduation rate.[4]  These programs on average also increased enrollment in a postsecondary institution by 12 percent. The impact of the programs, when evaluated by RCTs, also had a statistically significant positive impact, and increased enrollment by four percent on average. While results for the QEDs are still being interpreted, it was determined that measures of completed coursework are the best pre-college predictors of college graduation, and there is still ambiguity regarding QEDs’ ability to identify causal impacts of college access programs.    

The study has reported preliminary findings and a finalized report will be issued at a later date.

Patrice Fabel is a research assistant at the American Institutes for Research and a member of the National High School Center’s Research Team

[1] Lee, J.M., Edwards, K., Menson, R., & Rawls, A. (2011). The College Completion Agenda 2011: Progress Report. Washington, DC: The College Board. Retrieved from

[2] Harvill, E., Maynard, R., Nguyen, H., Robertson-Kraft, C, Tognatta, N. (2012). Effects of College Access Programs on College Readiness and Enrollment: A meta-analysis. Evanston, IL: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.  

[3] Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), Career Academies, Early College, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), Excel, FAFSA intervention with H&R Block, Upward Bound, Sponsor a Scholar Program, Quantum Opportunity Program, Talent Search, Tech Prep, Achieving a College Education Plus Program (ACE Plus).

[4] However, the three college access programs evaluated by the RCTs illustrated that the average impact was not statistically significant.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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