Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A College Access Study to Pay Attention To

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Have you ever wondered if you’ve made a difference in the college plans of a student?  If so, there’s some good news in this week’s New York Times—but you have to dig a little for it.

David Leonhardt reported on a study where highly able students from low-income areas were given information on some highly selective colleges.  The report states 54 percent of the students who received this information were admitted to one of the highly selective colleges described in the information  This compares to a 30 percent admission rate for another group of highly able, low-income students who received no such information.

The results suggest that the work counselors do in individual meetings, group presentations, bulletin boards, and web sites gives students and parents the information they need to broaden their view of what’s possible after high school.  When you can double the number of students admitted to top colleges, the work you do for all students is affirmed and confirmed, and that is welcome news.

At the same time, a key part of the study’s design gives counselors something to consider.  The college information the students received didn’t come from a school counselor; it was mailed to their homes by College Board.  Since the students were randomly selected, it’s safe to conclude the only significant difference between the students in the two groups were the mailings they received, not the use or availability of a counselor (for more information, see

It’s easy to see how budget-minded school boards might use this information to reduce the number of school counselors or the scope of our work.  The structure of the study makes it far too easy for a casual reader to conclude “Well, if poor kids can get into Harvard just by reading a brochure, why can’t our students apply to college themselves?”

Given the impressive results of this study, counselors would be wise to read the study closely and have a response ready for counseling critics:

·         --Could the 54 percent admission rate increase even more if students had access to a trained school counselor?

·        -- The study doesn’t address how students felt about the application process.  Did the information make applying easy, or would it have helped if a counselor was able to offer advice on which extracurriculars to list, how the essays should be structured, and which teachers to approach for letters of recommendation?

·         --Was it easy for the student to determine which of the highly selective schools would best meet their needs and interests?  While the graduation rates of all highly selective schools are high, there are ample differences between, say, MIT and Brown—differences a student should consider to avoid becoming one of the few students who doesn’t complete a degree.

·       --  Highly able students have long had a reputation for self-selecting their college with success.  What modifications to this study would increase the admission rates of all students to all colleges, and what role would a counselor play in those modifications?

This study clearly rebukes the idea that low-income students don’t want to attend highly selective colleges, and the results of the study offer counselors tremendous ideas on how to help all low-income students improve college access and completion.  At the same time, not every student will earn an A in Algebra 2 just by reading the book; given the high number of students wanting to attend colleges that admit a low percentage of applicants, trained counselors are needed more than ever before to help students discover college options and make strong, successful college choices. 

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