A Brief Primer on College Success Programs—Challenges and Successes

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

During my career, I have evaluated dozens of college access programs and worked with hundreds of practitioners on improving their programs and measuring efficacy. These programs are in operation because the academic system, from pre-K to graduate/professional school, is slanted to those who have the wherewithal, both financially and academically, to navigate elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. The playing field is not level and a wide swath of students are left to chart out their own pathway through the education pipeline. Students targeted for these programs are more likely to be low-income, of color, with disability, or do not possess a legacy of postsecondary education within their nuclear family. On top of this, public schools, and arguably to a lesser degree private schools, do not possess the human capital to provide the needed extra support these students need to improve their reading, writing, and analytics. NAEP and other data clearly show that the academic damage is often complete by the fourth grade; students almost never catch up after that point.

Well before the TRiO programs of 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and 1965 (Higher Education Act), there were college preparation programs at schools and colleges across the country, but most were focused on those who were able to go to college, not a leverage stick for the also rans. As well, most were focused on white students because schools were still largely segregated, by law or by practice. In 1890, the Morrill Act II was enacted to provide accessible higher education to Black students in a similar way that land-grant institutions were created through the original Morrill Act in 1862. The establishment of HBCUs helped put in place a crosswalk for a relatively low percentage of Black students who had experienced and completed a reasonable secondary education to attend a postsecondary education institution.

Some Background

We can point to many occasions during the 20th century that helped leverage increased college access for these marginalized youth population, but any discussion would be negligent without acknowledging four major movements: (1) the GI Bill (1944); (2) Marshall vs. Board of Education (1954); (3) the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s; and (4) the establishment of the Pell Grant.

The GI Bill massified higher education and took it from something the affluent did and allowed military personnel to pursue a college education. Following World War II, 2.2 million veterans attended two- and four-year institutions and 3.5 million attended vocational schools. This required the large-scale development of higher education in the US that was unprecedented in the world. Between 1940 and 1950, the number of college students attending US institutions almost doubled from 1.5 to 2.7 million students.[1]

The landmark Supreme Court Ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education resulted in the desegregation of public schools across the United States. While the overall impact of Brown vs. Board has been and continues to be debated, it set the pathway for increased college access for Black students. This was followed by the Civil Rights Legislation of 1964 and 1965 which resulted in the development of the Higher Education Act and created the TRiO Programs, inclusive of Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services. These programs are still funded and in operation around the country today at high schools and colleges.

Finally, the Pell Grant, originally coined the Basic Educational Opportunity Act (BEOG), was legislated in 1972 through the leadership of Senator Claiborne Pell.[2] The BEOG (renamed after Pell in 1980) essentially provided a voucher that would follow students to the college of their choice or admission and could cover up to 50 percent of college costs.[3]

All of these actions, as well as the creation and expansion of the federal student loan program, increased college enrollment for all subgroups, including minorities, low-income students, and first-generation college students. And as more of these students enrolled in college, we learned one vital lesson: providing access to college is simply insufficient to expand educational opportunity. Students who are historically underrepresented at the postsecondary level dropout and stopout at rates far above those of traditional students. And this happens for three primary reasons: (1) they are lesser prepared for the rigor of a college education; (2) they are more fragile financially than their peers; and (3) they are socially unprepared for college, on average, compared to other students.

The creation of college access programs was aimed at ameliorating these issues to an extent. College access programs typically focus on discrete pieces along the academic timeline, including middle school, high school, and summer bridge programs (summer between high school graduation and college matriculation). One needs only to look at the composition of most programs to see how they intersect with the need. For instance, most programs, especially at the high school level, provide the following areas of support for students:

Academic. Programs typically provide tutoring and other academic support, some of which include class pullouts for students to try and bring them up to speed academically. Certain programs provide peer tutoring and others professional tutoring opportunities. In addition, many programs provide SAT/ACT test prep to help student prepare for the tests.

Financial. The well-heeled access programs provide scholarships for students, while almost all programs provide scholarship search and FAFSA-preparation and support to ensure that students apply for federal grants and funds. In addition, many programs also provide financial literacy workshops to help students (and families) better understand the importance of prudent financial living through and beyond college. While many students do not think they can afford college, there are pathways to an affordable college education for most students, and part of financial counseling is showing them how to financially pursue a college education.

Social. A challenge for many students is the acculturation to the college environment, especially for those who live residentially on the college campus. Students who do not possess a family legacy of college-going have less to rely on from their family in terms of understanding the challenges of being a successful college student. The literature is ripe with details of the challenges of certain populations, notably Latino/a populations, with the pull of family strings while trying to succeed in college. College access programs counsel students about these challenges and provide information on how best to work within the family context while also gaining a better understanding of the college environment.

In the end, the ability of college access programs to help alleviate considerable challenges facing students is difficult at best. Negating a culture of not going to college, the years of below-par education, and working through the financial proposition of going to college are difficult hurdles to overcome. Some programs do an excellent job with these challenges and help students prepare, enroll, and succeed. However, the research on the outcomes of these programs is limited and based primarily on anecdotal research rather than empirical research.

Today, there are literally thousands of college access programs around the country. We’ve mentioned TRiO programs, especially Talent Search and Upward Bound, at the high school level. Another federal program, GEAR UP, provides support to students from the seventh grade on/ There are other, non-governmental non-profit organizations, including I Have a Dream, College Bound, College Track, AVID, Cal-SOAP, MESA, Puente Project, College Summit, as well as countless one-off programs sponsored by local organizations.

College Access in the Future

There is no argument that these programs can help students prepare and access the next level of education. Data clearly illustrate the outcomes that go with a college degree for non-traditional students. This group of students, more than any other, has a much higher relative impact from a college degree than other students. It can be life changing for those that persist and complete their college program. Therein lies the greatest challenges for this group of students: many do not complete, leaving them without a degree and most likely with significant financial debt. This is a problem for many students, and a risk that forces some students to consider whether going to college is a good idea. It is, but only if students take the necessary steps to ensure their own success.

As stated, there is very little information about the actual impact of college access programs on student success. EPI has conducted dozens of studies in the past, including decennial surveys of programs across the US. However, “hard data” is difficult to find and much of what we know about these programs is anecdotal. Even the largest of the programs—TRiO and GEAR Up—have limited information about the actual success of their programs. There are data, but even the national studies show a “middling” of success for these programs. It is important to remember that these and associated programs are dealing with students who would have not previously been considered “college material.” Thus, the growth necessary to be successful is larger than average.

For non-federal programs, the data are even more limited. In our 2012 study of pre-college outreach programs, we found only a few out of hundreds had viable outcome data. More importantly, many of those that did weren’t necessarily using the data appropriately, let alone prudently. For provide a simple example, we found that many programs calculated their program completion rates by using the number of students in 11th grade who finished in 12th grade, rather than those who entered the program in 9th grade. The completion rate would have been vastly different if the proper data were utilized. This is only an example of the many data issues we encounter in the field.

What we can say is that there are unique challenges that impact the potential of college access programs to be successful and make a real impact for students. Here are some that come to mind:

  1. Creaming. This isn’t a 0primary problem in college access programs, but it is a consistent one. Creaming is the term used to describe when programs take the best students rather than those that are more appropriately targeted for their services. We see programs focused on first generation and other populations that use their “seats” or openings for students who are already on the college track. This is not to be confused with programs that do target these students. The creamed students definitely benefit from the services of these programs, but the question remains: who doesn’t receive those services as a result?
  2. Lack of Buy-In. These programs work in schools and schools are run by administrators and school districts. In many cases, the programs are externally funded and operate within the schools. In our history, we have seen schools that openly accepted these programs as one of their own and internalized the services. In others, they disassociate or provide limited support. In these cases, the programs are associated by distance. We talk to practitioners regularly about the challenges of working in a school where they are seen as “outsiders.”
  3. Academic Challenges. It can be problematic to expect any type of add-on program to fix years and years of prior academic difficulty. As stated, NAEP scores, in particular, illustrate how much damage is done by the time students are in the fourth grade, who are then forced to play catch-up for the remainder of their academic careers (arguably throughout their lives). Programs can help greatly in raising the academic ability of students, but it is what it is—a band aid to a host of academic issues that have existed for years. For most students, they may raise their academics up to a college enrollment and acceptance level, but too many falter during college from being less academically prepared. This is, beyond all else, arguably the greatest challenge facing students and college access programs.
  4. Trying to Do Too Much. Many programs we see simply try and do too much. As with academic challenges, they try to fix all the problems that their students encounter. Many programs could perhaps do more by doing less. From a practitioners’ point of view, this is a hard item to accept, because they know the deficiencies that many of these students have in all of the areas previously described. But sometimes doing more reduces other successes.
  5. Doing Too Little. On the flipside, there are some programs that don’t do enough. They do not provide enough contact time to make any difference. We call this “dosage” of treatment. And when students do have not have enough contact time, their buy-in is lesser and the impact of the program is diluted. There must be a significant amount of time provided to make change in attitude, behavior, and academic ability. These things can’t be shortchanged or short-cutted. As a former professor once told me, you can’t get around the “seat time” required to succeed.
  6. Staffing. Finding and keeping highly-qualified staff is a constant challenge for many programs. We find that many people who work for these programs do so because they have an affinity for this type of work and care deeply for the cause. But there is limited occupational growth and, in some cases, limited job security. Thus, there can be a revolving door in schools. There are no great solutions for these issues. Sure, better hiring can be suggested, but sometimes these programs do great hiring and other factors come into play. People leave because their spouses get hired elsewhere or they find better employment opportunities. And sometimes they leave because funding is cut or reduced.
  7. Professional Development and Training. We see that many programs provide training and professional development for their employees. But the level of training is limited. We find that most of the para-professionals in these positions learn on the job. In doing so, we often see great variation in the services within a program depending on who it is coming from.
  8. Program Variation. The best programs have a consistency in approach and practice. They do the same type of things regardless of place, with some local consideration for culture or other issues. Especially for programs that are multi-campus or multi-school, there is a great need for standardization and continuity in how program strategies and interventions and provided. Workshops should be the same regardless of where they are provided. There is no real valid argument for doing things differently, and programs need to look deeply at how they provide these services to students.

What I’ve stated herein doesn’t solve all issues, nor does it clearly identify all the positives and negatives in the college access world. Needless to say, these programs are complex and the variation between programs is similarly if not necessarily complex. No two program are seemingly the same, which perhaps is one of the challenges we face, even within large program frameworks, such as those that are federally funded.

College access programs provide support for students that are not receiving the necessary support within their schools and communities. Still, there are improvements that can be made to make them more functional with greater impact. We talk about this as improving the efficacy of the programs. Making every dollar work towards college access and success.

For more information, please read some of our publications on this topic:

The Student Success Papers

[1] https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-the-gi-bill-changed-higher-education/?cid=gen_sign_in.

[2] See Gladieux, L.E., Astor, B., and Swail, W.S. (1998). Memory, Reason, Imagination: A Quarter Century of Pell Grants. The College Entrance Examination Board.

[3] Congress legislated a 50 percent cap in 1972, raised it to 60 percent in 1978, and eliminated the cap altogheter as the purchasing power fell far below the caps, regardless. Today the Pell covers approximately 29 percent of college costs for students (2016: https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/pell-grants-a-key-tool-for-expanding-college-access-and-economic-opportunity).

One thought on “A Brief Primer on College Success Programs—Challenges and Successes

  1. Thanks Scott for this list of issues and their nuances. Very helpful in comprehending the scope of the challenge of achieving imapact.

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