More Research-Based Strategies for College Access Programs


In my last blog post, I discussed the strengths of effective college access programs for disadvantaged students. These strategies included serving entire schools, working with those not already planning to attend college, and engaging participants over a long time.

Since then, I’ve been investigating some more program components that are considered important to see if research supports them. These approaches were: encouraging students to take advanced courses, involving parents, and starting early, before high school.

Several authors, such as Laura Perna (2002), discuss the importance of having students take rigorous high school courses during college preparation programs. However, most of the research the authors cited only described the correlation between taking advanced courses and attending college. Much of this association has to do with students’ advantages and abilities, and most studies did not control for all of these. However, some researchers did do a better job isolating the effects of advanced classes using the propensity score matching technique. Long and colleagues (2012) found that students who took honors or AP courses had higher test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment rates than their peers, controlling for other factors. There was a larger effect for the first honors or AP course taken, which suggests that focusing on students who have not taken any advanced courses may help. In a similar study, researchers found that after controlling for other factors, students who took at least one math class beyond Algebra II scored higher in math and attended college at a higher rate (Byun et al. 2015). A third study also investigated math courses, but measured course level on a scale rather than as a “yes or no” variable. The authors also concluded that higher-level courses improved college-going rates (Attewell & Domina 2008). The research demonstrates that taking rigorous courses should increase students’ college enrollment by helping them prepare. College access programs should therefore encourage students to take difficult classes and, if these are not available, offer their own classes or academic enrichment outside of school.

The literature on access programs also stressed the importance of parental involvement. Although I did not read any studies directly analyzing how parents’ involvement in college prep programs influences students, I did find some useful related information. According to Hossler and Stage (1992), the largest predictor of students’ intentions of attending college was their parents’ educational expectations for them. Parental expectations also stem from their own education level and other preexisting factors. However, assuming that these factors do not completely determine expectations, if parents were encouraged to consider higher education for their students, this could improve students’ outcomes. Hossler and Schmit (1999) recommend involving parents in college access programs early on to help influence their expectations and their students’ decision to attend college. This could especially help those with less family education.

Finally, starting programs early is considered important for students to solidify intentions of higher education and get on a college-bound academic track. According to Hossler and Stage (1992), 70% of surveyed students had decided whether or not to attend college by the 9th grade. This suggests that college interventions should start before high school. Hossler and Schmit (1999) recommend beginning in 5th or 6th grade. I need to do more research on this subject to find out which age makes the most sense for beginning college prep activities.

The research I recently found describes the central role of academic preparation for college access, as well as the influence of parental expectations and the need to address these factors early. College preparation programs have the challenging task of ensuring students take college preparatory classes, which may involve updating class rigor for schoolwide programs, or encouraging students to take advanced classes and providing support for out-of-school programs. Parental involvement also could take several forms, such as college and financial aid information sessions, or even more thorough commitments. Similarly, it seems that starting college activities before high school should help, but it is unclear exactly how early is needed. I hope to discover this and the influence of other factors of programs on participants in the rest of my research.



Attewell, P., & Domina, T. (2008). Raising the bar: Curricular intensity and academic performance. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(1), 51-71.

Byun, S., Irvin, M. J., & Bell, B. A. (2015). Advanced math course taking: Effects on math achievement and college enrollment. The Journal of Experimental Education, 83(4), 439-468).

Hossler, D., Schmit, J., & Vesper, N. (1999). Going to college: How social, economic, and educational factors influence the decisions students make. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hossler, D. & Stage, F. K. Family and high school experience influences on the postsecondary educational plans of ninth-grade students. American Educational Research Journal, 29(2), 425-451.

Long, M. C., Conger, D., & Iatarola, P. (2012). Effects of high school course-taking on secondary and postsecondary success. American Educational Research Journal, 49(2), 285-322.

Perna, L. W. (2002). Precollege outreach programs: Characteristics of programs serving historically underrepresented groups of students. Journal of  College Student Development, 43(1), 64-83.