Effectiveness of College Preparation Programs for Disadvantaged Students- Part 1


Attending college makes a large difference in students’ lives, especially in terms of economic well-being. On average, Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn about $47,000 per year in after-tax income, compared with only $29,000 for high school graduates (Ma et al. 2016). Unfortunately, for those with low socioeconomic status, earning a bachelor’s degree is disproportionately difficult. In 2012, only 14% of young adults who came from a low-income background had earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties, compared with 29% of those with medium SES and 60% of those with high SES. Large gaps exist even between those with similar test scores (NCES 2015). Disadvantaged students need a stronger pathway of support to gain access to higher education.

As a result of the obstacles underprivileged students face, hundreds of organizations have emerged to provide them with advising, academic enrichment, and other resources to encourage college enrollment. These groups are sponsored by the federal government, universities, businesses, and private supporters, and include many different components. My research question for this project was: What attributes and approaches of outreach programs are most effective at improving students’ college attendance and completion?

The topic of this project has slightly evolved from my starting point. Originally, I wanted to research summer enrichment programs for urban students. However, as I began reading articles, I realized that it would make the most sense to study college preparation programs in general, whether they operated during the summer or the school year. In fact, many college access initiatives occur within schools. Finally, since it would be difficult to separate results by urbanicity, I broadened my focus to both urban and rural areas.

Effectiveness of Programs

Many education articles describe different types of college access initiatives. The largest agencies are federally funded ones, including Upward Bound, Talent Search, and GEAR UP. These encompass two major approaches to college access. The first is the “student-centered” or “targeted” setup. Organizations of this type, including Upward Bound and Talent Search, recruit high-potential students and provide them support outside of school. In contrast, “schoolwide” or “blended” programs such as those using the federal GEAR UP grant are integrated within the school and include a wider range of participants (Gullatt & Jan 2003).

Many studies investigate whether outreach projects improve students’ college attendance rates and other outcomes. The research I read included some positive and some more pessimistic findings. Multiple studies of individual organizations have demonstrated promising results. For example, in one experiment, high school juniors in Boston were randomly assigned to participate or not to participate in Career Beginnings, an organization offering academic enrichment, career exploration, and mentoring. The Career Beginnings students attended college at a higher rate than the control group, although first-year retention was equal (Gullatt & Jan 2003). In another evaluation, 85% of participants in the Sponsor-a-Scholar mentoring program attended college, compared with 65% of their peers (Johnson 1998). Unfortunately, other studies had more mixed results on participant outcomes. One experiment randomly assigned students to join Upward Bound or not. The “treatment” group had no improvement in GPA and a statistically insignificant increase in college enrollment (Myers et al. 2004). Similarly, in one researcher’s large-scale review of college access organizations, those who participated did not perform significantly better in school or attend college at higher rates than others (Domina 2009). Another set of researchers found that on average, program participants had slightly lower test scores and college retention rates than non-participants and did not significantly differ in other measures (Glennie et al. 2015). These disappointing statistics may have occurred because many students only participated in programs for less than a year (Domina 2009), but they may also reveal that initiatives vary in quality.

Effective Approaches

To pursue my main question, I wanted to find what attributes of college outreach best help students achieve higher education. One of the major themes discussed related to selectivity. Several studies asserted that students with lower prospects of going to college could benefit more from outreach. In Mathematica’s randomized study of Upward Bound, students who did not originally expect to earn a bachelor’s degree but were assigned to join Upward Bound enrolled in 4-year colleges at a rate of 38% compared to 18%, earned twice as many credits in 4-year colleges, earned more high school credits, and took more advanced high school classes (Myers et al. 2004). In contrast, students who expected to gain a bachelor’s degree showed no significant improvement from the program. Similarly, in Domina’s study (2009), while members of targeted and schoolwide programs did not have significantly better outcomes overall, those who had not participated in any college search activities by sophomore year but attended schools with schoolwide initiatives had 6.5% higher college enrollment rates, took more advanced math classes, and had higher math test scores than their peers. It appears that students with lower educational prospects might not learn about higher education without the intervention of their schools and can benefit more than others from these resources.

Domina’s 2009 research also revealed a possible greater effectiveness of schoolwide programs than extracurricular, “student-centered” ones. As already mentioned, when high schoolers less oriented toward college attended a school with an outreach program, they were more likely to become college bound. In contrast, students with lower expectations in targeted programs had more modest gains- they took more advanced classes but had lower math test scores, with marginal statistical significance (Domina 2009). This broader-scope study does conflict somewhat with the more positive findings of the Upward Bound experiment (Myers et al. 2004), but it is possible that on average, schoolwide programs are better able to reach at-risk students than targeted programs.

Within the category of schoolwide programs, many universities partner with local school districts to provide services like academic and college advising, professional development, and sometimes even policy assistance. One important study compared the effects of two types of partnerships: “programmatic” ones, which offer specific support such as tutoring and information sessions, and “comprehensive” ones, which reach broader into school policy. For example, some universities work with schools to make sure the classes needed for acceptance are mandated at the school. According to the schools’ statistics, both programmatic and comprehensive partnerships in California improved graduation rates. Comprehensive programs that had been in place for over 10 years made an especially big difference in graduation rates. In comprehensive partnership schools, more students attended community college for the first few years, and more attended CSU universities, especially as the program grew older. In contrast, non-comprehensive partnerships did not have significant differences in college-going outcomes (Domina & Ruzek 2012). It appears that when universities become deeply involved with schools and affect curricula, both high school and college outcomes can improve. The stronger improvement in graduation rates and CSU attendance after 10 years also revealed the importance of a long-term relationship between universities, school districts, and students.

In other college access programs as well, long-term involvement seems to bolster achievement. In Mathematica’s study of Upward Bound, students who stayed in the program longer had significantly higher college enrollment rates, although some of this difference may have come from motivation (Myers et al. 2004). Also, in the Sponsor-a-Scholar mentoring program, the scholars whose mentors contacted them weekly had significantly higher GPAs, college attendance, and college retention than matched controls, whereas those with less frequent contact with their mentors had few differences in achievement (Johnson 1998).


To summarize what I have found so far, college access programs appear to make a greater impact if they target less successful or privileged students, if they work with an entire school, and if they have a far-reaching, long-term commitment. I plan to continue examining more aspects of programs, such as the starting age of participants and whether advanced courses are offered, and how they affect students’ ability to pursue higher education.




Domina, T. (2009). What works in college outreach: Assessing targeted and schoolwide interventions for disadvantaged students. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(2), 127-152. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478690

Domina, T., & Ruzek, E. (2012). Paving the way: K16 partnerships for higher education diversity and high school reform. Educational Policy, 26 (2), 243-267. https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904810386586

Glennie, E. J., Dalton, B. W., & Knapp, L. G. (2015). The influence of precollege access programs on postsecondary enrollment and persistence. Educational Policy, 29 (7), 963-983. https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904814531647

Gullatt, Y., & Jan, W. (2003). How do pre-collegiate academic outreach programs impact college-going among underrepresented students? Pathways to College Network Clearinghouse.

Johnson, A. W. (1998). An evaluation of the long-term impacts of the Sponsor-a-Scholar program on student performance: Final report to the Commonwealth Fund. Mathematica Policy Research. Retrieved from https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/mprmprres/358c610421f240398cfec36921a11c61.htm

Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). Education pays 2016: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. College Board. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2016-full-report.pdf

Myers, D., Olson, R., Seftor, N., Young, J., & Tuttle, C. (2004). The impacts of regular Upward Bound: Results from the third follow-up data collection. Washington: US Department of Education. Retrieved from https://permanent.access.gpo.gov/LPS108059/LPS108059/www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/upward/upward-3rd-report.pdf

National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Postsecondary attainment: Differences by socioeconomic status. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_tva.asp



  1. sahernandez says:

    This is a very enlightening and informative review of the relative success of different college preparation programs. This kind of analysis is extremely important, in that it dictates what practices to invest in to most effectively help disadvantaged teens, and what to improve upon in those practices. I found it especially interesting that programs supporting adolescents at risk were more successful than those supporting specific “gifted” teens. Although all disadvantaged students need encouragement and support to some extent, supporting those that have the most trouble with school makes a lot more sense.

  2. kmwenger says:

    Thank you for your nice comment! I was surprised too to find out that programs might do better to target more at-risk students than high-achieving students.

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