Those College PSAs May Help

Videos and other material making postsecondary education seem accessible appear to encourage college-going behaviors, study finds.

November 27, 2012

To most people in and around higher education, the information seems basic.

Many jobs require a postsecondary education.

Those with a two- or four-year college degree earn significantly more over their lifetimes than do peers with only a high school diploma.

And yes, college can be pricey (especially when room, board and books are accounted for), but governments (and colleges) provide significant financial aid to defray the costs, especially for low-income students. 

Basic, perhaps, but to many in the public -- especially those who have historically been underrepresented in higher education -- going to college seems an unnecessary hassle or an unachievable goal.

College access groups, philanthropic foundations, and higher education groups (with varying degrees of self-interest) spend significant time and effort trying to inform the detached or the daunted that going to college is both possible and worth it. Do the late-night public service announcements and other promotional campaigns have any effect at all?

A new study suggests that they do. The paper, conducted by two Canadian researchers and released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, sought to gauge the impact that exposure to information about the value of postsecondary education had on the interests and inclinations of economically disadvantaged students.

The researchers, Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto and Ryan Dunn, formerly of Higher Education Strategy Associates, gave a two-part online survey to about 1,600 high-school students at some of Toronto's most poorly rated high schools. The first survey asked questions about the students' backgrounds, educational goals, and expected eligibility for college financial aid, including whether they expected to attend college and why (or why not). 

After they completed the survey, half of the participants were done; the other half were shown a screen with a video (and transcript) with "positive" information about college, suggesting among other things that students with degrees earn more than their peers, and that "many students who are unsure about postsecondary education may overestimate costs or not realize [their] financial aid eligibility."

(The video, seen below, does note that college tuition, room and board, and other costs "can add up to a lot of money," but that's about the only negative thing said about higher education.)



In addition to viewing the video, the students were shown a financial aid calculator that let them estimate their families' financial situations and assess their eligibility for Ontario government financial aid. The typical student in the "treatment" group spent roughly three minutes on the webpage, with 12th-graders lingering a little more than their 9th-grade peers.

Three weeks after they completed the first survey, the entire group -- those who had access to the promotional materials and those who just filled out the survey -- were sent a link to the follow-up survey, which repeated some earlier questions (such as their expected education attainment levels) and included some new ones, such as how much students expected to earn by following various paths (going to college and not, etc.).

Upon taking the second part of the survey, the students who had received the extra information about college-going three weeks earlier projected significantly bigger bumps in earnings for college degree-holders than did students who did not view the video; the students in the treatment group were also significantly less likely than their peers to say that tuition and other costs were the main reason why some people do not enroll in college.

The students who received the information about postsecondary education also reported significant drops in their uncertainty about going on to college after high school. (To the extent they seemed more confident about pursuing and getting a degree, it was more likely to be a two-year than a four-year credential.) They also seemed somewhat more likely to request information about going to specific colleges or universities when they were presented with that opportunity upon completion of the second survey.

"Despite the intervention lasting only a few minutes and waiting three weeks before estimating impacts, the results suggest that providing easily accessible information about [postsecondary education] matters, especially for those initially uncertain about whether they want to go or can afford [postsecondary education]," the researchers wrote.

"They suggest inexpensive information programs may facilitate transitions from high school to college."


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