Two new papers suggest that summer counseling for low-income college-bound high school graduates can have a major impact on their freshman year of college.
One possible reason that legislative efforts to increase enrollment by low-income students have not always succeeded, one paper says, is that the government has “overlooked the summer after high school as an important time period in students’ transition to college.”
Benjamin Castleman, co-author of both papers and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, explained the pivotal nature of the last pre-college summer in an e-mail. “Over the summer… students may feel a greater sense of urgency to address any issues that remain. It is also during the summer when they have to complete a number of tasks, like attending orientation, completing placement tests, and paying their tuition bill, that are required for fall matriculation,” Castleman said. “Given that many of these tasks may seem unfamiliar to students, they may be responsive to the offer of counselor assistance to address these issues.”
A gap emerges, however, because “students who come from college-educated families... usually have families who can help them complete paperwork, finalize financial aid,” Castleman said in an interview. Lower-income high school graduates, on the other hand, “may be the first in their families to go to college, [so] their families may be unfamiliar… for lack of having had firsthand experience.”
Another disadvantage is that after graduating from high school, students no longer have access to counselors, many of whom are 10-month employees and as such would not be available anyway.
In the first paper, "The Forgotten Summer ," Castleman, Lindsay Page of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, and Korynn Schooley, research and evaluation analyst for Fulton County Schools, reported the results of two different experiments, in which rising college freshmen were offered counseling over the summer of 2011. The first involved uAspire, a college access organization based in Boston, while the second concentrated on the public school system of Fulton County, Georgia, which is located in the metro-Atlanta area.
In the second, "Summer Nudging,"  Castleman and Page studied the effects of "lower-cost interventions": one in which recent high school graduates were sent personalized text messages reminding them of major tasks to be completed, and another involving peer mentoring, both over the summer of 2012. For these studies, Castleman and Page collaborated with uAspire, the Dallas Independent School District and the Philadelphia-based Mastery Charter schools.
The first paper’s results indicate that student counseling over the summer after high school can have tangible positive results on college success. Among the Boston control group, four percent reached out to a uAspire adviser and two percent actually met with one; comparatively, 75 percent of students in the treatment group communicated with an adviser, and 52 percent of students in the treatment group had an extended meeting with one. In the Fulton County group, a much smaller proportion of the treatment group -- 35 percent -- interacted with counselors. However, the study also found that students who qualified for the free or reduced lunch program were twice as likely to make contact as those who did not qualify, lending credence to the idea that such resources are of particular benefit to low-income students.
According to Castleman, across both sites, fall college enrollment was 79 percent within the control group compared to 83 percent within the treatment group; among free/reduced lunch-eligible students in Fulton County Schools, enrollment was 64 percent in the control group and 72 percent in the treatment group. Across both sites, continuous college enrollment into the spring semester was 75 percent among the control group compared to 80 percent for the treatment group, and the probability that students whose intentions were documented enrolled at their intended college was 73 percent in the control group and 78 percent in the treatment group.
The second paper found that the text-messaging campaign "substantially increased college enrollment in several of our intervention sites." For instance, Castleman said, interventions in Lawrence and Springfield, Mass., found that the texting program resulted in fall enrollment of 70 percent in the treatment group, compared to 63 percent in the control group. The intervention "did not have an effect in Boston," according to Castleman, who attributed this to the widespread availability of college-related resources available in the city. Among the students in the peer mentoring program, enrollment at four-year institutions in the treatment and control groups was 43 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
"Just… offering kids a few hours of support with a counselor over the summer can significantly increase both on-time college enrollment and college persistence into several semesters of college,” Page said in an interview. “[W]e’ve been able to track kids into as many as three semesters.”
Castleman also said via e-mail that he believed there would be “considerable promise” in a summer counseling program that was instead conducted by universities and colleges themselves.
“First, students may be more responsive to outreach from the institution they've indicated a desire to enroll at than to outreach from the high school from which they've just graduated,” he said. “Second, colleges potentially have much more detailed information about the summer tasks that students have and haven't completed, allowing for more targeted outreach to students.”
Although the counseling trials were conducted in city schools, Page said she believed both programs observed in the papers would be “eminently scalable to educational settings throughout the country,” particularly the text-messaging program: “[P]articularly in either rural areas or in very large metropolitan areas there might be a central counseling that is very far from where students are located…[in those cases] text messages could be particularly beneficial,” she said.