The ongoing pandemic has been an incredible challenge for graduating high school seniors in virtually every way. First-generation and low-income students face daunting hurdles on the way to college even in normal times, and with the increased financial challenges and family responsibilities of the last year, those barriers have only intensified. Combined with the upheaval of remote learning, students are in precarious positions.

Falling FAFSA completion rates — particularly among students from low-income backgrounds — and steep declines in the number of students with defined postsecondary plans, according to anecdotal data from 70 or so New York City high schools that College Access Research & Action (CARA) — a New York City-based nonprofit — serves, suggest that there’s a deep need for extra support to keep incoming students on course and stanch “summer melt,” which is when college-bound students put off or forgo enrollment. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows an unprecedented 13.1% drop in freshman enrollment from last fall, with a 21% drop at public two-year colleges.

With high school and college counseling offices stretched to or beyond their limits, resources for supporting students through all these challenges are thin. This is where near-peer mentoring programs like CARA’s come in.

The Pilot

With generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in partnership with four campuses of the City University of New York, CARA is trying out a new high school-to-college bridge programming model to help keep college-bound students on course.

Near-peer bridge programs, like CARA’s long-running College Bridge, typically hire and train college students to work in their high school alma maters as “coaches” to high school seniors who plan to go to college — guiding seniors over the course of their final year and the following summer through the application process and various other tasks, like completing financial-aid forms, registering for classes, and preparing for the social-emotional challenges of the college transition.
But CARA’s new pilot program, called College Connect, is different.

Launched in summer 2020, College Connect moved the focus from high schools to colleges. Unlike traditional bridge programs, where coaches support a single class of seniors pursuing a wide variety of postsecondary plans at different colleges and alternative options, in this pilot program, CARA coaches worked with students planning to attend the same CUNY colleges as their coaches. College Connect’s design also ensured that coaches continued to support their students through their first year of college.

As in all of CARA’s programs, many coaches and students are the first in their families to attend college. And as numerous studies have shown, the benefits of peer leadership are vast. Students are often more likely to build a rapport and take guidance from someone with whom they can closely relate, and peers can offer a sense of community and connection that goes beyond what adult staff members are able to provide.

Our partner schools were two four-year institutions — Brooklyn College (BC) and City College of New York (CCNY) — and two two-year institutions — Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and Bronx Community College (BCC). On each of these campuses, we had strong support from the enrollment department and leadership. They identified New York City public school students who had pledged to enroll in the spring but were considered at high risk of not starting in the fall. Then they sent emails and text messages inviting those students to participate in a one-on-one virtual summer support program. Nearly 700 students from across the four campuses participated.

We brought on eight coaches — two per campus. Enrollment staff at each college met directly with these coaches to provide training on school-specific milestones and requirements.

This allowed coaches to give students more targeted support: When students had issues that coaches couldn’t solve, they were able to leverage campus connections to find answers or put students in touch with staff who could assist them. This model also gave our team better access to administrative resources and student-level data — like FAFSA verification and course registration status — so we could more effectively support students.

These campus connections were key, since coaches weren’t able to meet students in person amid the pandemic. Researchers have noted a “lack of overall impact of text-based outreach when coming from a person and/or organization with whom the student has no personal connection.” (Castleman, 2020). But since the initial outreach to students came via the college itself, and the coaches — who had several years of experience as coaches — were so closely associated with the college, students seemed to feel more connected and engaged than they would have had the support come from an independent provider who was new to the work.

The texting platform, called Hustle, was also essential to the work. It allowed coaches, whose caseloads ranged from 75 to 100 students, to interact with their assigned students virtually.
Using this platform, coaches sent personalized mass messages to students and also had individualized, one-on-one conversations with them. Weekly reminders kept students on track with upcoming tasks and important deadlines, and check-in texts and messages of support encouraged student interaction. With almost all participating students responding to at least one text message, it was clear that this support was important and appreciated. We know that a feeling of belonging on campus is central to student success, so having these connections before even entering college was a major bonus for incoming freshmen. The results of the pilot back this up, as we found that participating students were more likely to enroll in the fall than those who weren’t in the program (but more on that later).

Over the summer, we helped each participating college host a virtual meetup for their incoming students to review basic enrollment information and answer questions. These meetups were extremely well-attended, with more than half of the program students tuning in.

The Results

The response from students was overwhelmingly positive. Of the 700 or so students who participated, more than 90% replied to at least one text message, while the average student participant sent 21 text messages to their coach over the summer. The median number of texts sent was 14, and the number sent by individual students ranged from 1 to 257. Students often talked with coaches about their fear of starting college amid a pandemic, the registration challenges they encountered, and student life on their particular campus. Some coaches and students also communicated via phone or video calls, but the bulk of interaction occurred via text. Despite the remote setup, messages between coaches and students showed that they’d developed trusting relationships that allowed for meaningful, personalized support to be given and utilized.

Most important, the program had a significant impact on student enrollment. The incoming students we coached were 15% more likely to enroll in college. Per a recent analysis, an average of 73.7% of our pilot program participants went on to enroll in college last fall (2020), versus an average of 58.5% of high school seniors who did not participate in the program.

What’s more, the program’s benefits weren’t limited to the participants; they extended to the coaches, too, who not only earned money for college, but gained valuable work experience. All CARA coaches are trained in professional capacities like leadership, problem-solving, and collaboration. Whether students pursue careers in counseling — as many plan to — or in other fields, these skills will prove important.

The good news is the summer bridge pilot was only the beginning of this initiative. At BMCC and BC, College Connect merged with CARA’s existing College Allies peer leadership program. Under this model, college-based peer leaders spent the year providing persistence support to first-year students, helping them navigate class registration, financial aid, college systems, and other aspects of the undergraduate experience. And a number of the students who participated in the summer program decided to remain in the program, while a host of new participants joined as well. Over the summer of 2021 and the following school year, College Connect plans to expand to serve a total of 4,000 students at BMCC and CCNY, and for the 2022 school year, we plan to serve 8,000 students on four campuses. In the meantime, we and our CUNY partners are reflecting on the lessons learned and creating a plan to scale near-peer support programs throughout the CUNY system. While each CUNY campus is unique, our eventual goal is to have a program on every campus in the system that can engage with incoming students from the summer before they set foot on their campus through the end of their freshman year.

If the pandemic and racial reckoning in this country and on campuses have taught us anything, it’s that colleges need to do more to make incoming first-generation students and students of color feel welcome. Near-peer mentoring programs like College Connect might be a good first step.

See a Real Life Example of Peer Support

At the time of writing, Paula Kashtan was director of the College Bridge program at College Access Research & Action (CARA). She is now director of college access at College Possible Minnesota.