Bridging the College Info Gap
When researchers mailed college information to high-achieving, low-income students last year, follow-up survey results were promising: Many students reported feeling more knowledgeable than their peers about the college application and financial aid processes. But when asked if they recalled receiving the mailings, only 40 percent of students did.
These findings highlight both a strength of the intervention and an opportunity. On the one hand, the provision of relevant and consumable information does help shape student choices and behavior in positive ways. But, despite the appeal and ease of a low-cost intervention, mailings might not be the most effective way to deliver information to students.
The experiment targeted high-achieving, low-income students because they tend to apply to or enroll in less selective colleges than their academic credentials would qualify them for, in part because of a general lack of information.
And the experiment worked — to an extent. Because the mailings explained that students from low-income families are unlikely to pay the full sticker price in tuition at selective institutions, students who received the mailings were more likely to report that they weighed financial aid considerations in their college application decisions than the students who did not receive it.
They were also more knowledgeable about college match, or the alignment between their own academic qualifications and a college’s level of selectivity. Recipients of the information were considerably more likely than their peers to report that they applied to colleges where the average student had similar GPAs to their own.
But in the end, snail mail addressing a digital generation only had so much of an effect.
Our own research suggests that many students rely on their schools to help them make better, more informed decisions about college. As one high-achieving student told us: “My school didn’t really tell us what we needed to do to apply (to college), so a lot of students felt overwhelmed.”
Students may be more apt to act upon college application information if people they know and trust, such as their teachers and counselors, confer it on them. In particular, high schools can ensure that students and parents receive and understand accurate information about college types, quality, and cost. Teachers and counselors, in an effort to provide ongoing and personalized support, can also follow up with students to monitor their application choices.
Thus, while mailing information is helpful, a better delivery method would likely come from schools, where adult mentors and counselors can have a more personal effect.
The Education Trust has resources available for educators who want to help students navigate the college application process. College Results Online is an interactive website that provides information about net price, graduation rates, and spending for all colleges in the U.S. Users can also compare similar colleges.