Staying on Target for College

By Betsy Prueter

Many prospective students, while qualified and prepared for college, often do not know how to navigate the deadlines and paperwork requirements necessary to access financial aid applications and admission to a university, argues a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute. These students may enroll in low-quality educational options, fail to graduate or even not apply at all. In fact, research shows that for every 100 students who aspire to a four-year college, just 41 enroll in one. This is due, in part, to barriers students face along the way including failing to file the FAFSA or failing to enroll after they have been accepted to an institution.

The report considers a number of innovative ideas to address the complexity of the college process that go beyond traditional counseling and advising. To appeal to policymakers, the report suggests reforms to help take the most promising (and relatively low-cost) ideas to scale and encourage similar innovation.

The report reviewed current innovation in four phases of the pathway to college.

  • College-going aspirations and behaviors: Simple, informational interventions are showing positive results in students’ beliefs about their abilities to go to and be successful in college.
    • Examples include having students view a short video explaining the benefits of a college education or providing online tools that help students assess their level of preparedness for college.
  • Applying to College: While The College Scorecard does a good job of simplifying information and focusing on a few key elements of the college search and application process, research indicates that being more proactive with information may have a bigger impact.
    • For example, sending customized college application packets and fee waivers directly to students’ homes has a significant impact on their chances of applying and being accepted to college.
  • Financial Aid Phase: Because four in ten students ruled out colleges based on sticker price alone, the need to help families navigate the financial aid process is especially important.
    • Online tools and price calculators can help families compare net prices between and among institutions and hands-on interventions can help families submit the FAFSA at the same time as their tax return, increasing the likelihood of enrolling in college by 25%.
  • Matriculation and Retention: Researchers have identified a “summer melt” where 10-20% of students who are accepted and enroll fail to show up on the first day of class, perhaps due to anxiety after receiving the first tuition bill.
    • Low-touch (and low-cost) interventions such as text messages with reminders on key steps needed to complete the enrollment process can decrease attrition (read more about this type of intervention here).
    • Coaching and advising programs specifically targeting freshmen (including online systems that keep in touch with students via text message and/or email) are showing success in increasing retention, and may soon replace less cost-effective approaches.

The report concludes with identifying barriers in adopting these innovations to scale including the lack of data and transparency on colleges’ performance and outcomes, the difficulty of partnering with the K-12 public school systems and managing its bureaucracy, and the reforms needed to provide incentives to schools to adopt new approaches.