A Program Encouraging College Attendance Embraces the Family

By Jon Luoma

When former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called education “still the great equalizer” in 2011, he was echoing the words of nineteenth-century education pioneer Horace Mann. Hard data confirm the sentiment. Across a host of factors, from income to health status, education—and in this century notably college education—remains key to lessening inequality.

Yet, when it comes to college attainment, large inequalities persist in the United States, particularly harming students from less-affluent families, including those from schools with large proportions of racial or ethnic minority students. Anita Young and Norma Day-Vines, both on the Johns Hopkins School of Education faculty, are leading an innovative push, dubbed Achieving College/Career Excellence through Student Success (ACCESS), to help level that adverse tilt. The aim is to help boost the probability that students in high schools in and around Baltimore will apply to college—and succeed there.

Funded by a grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s College Preparation Intervention Program in support of the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, ACCESS is a multifaceted approach to a complex problem. The program targets four high schools in urban Baltimore and two others in adjacent Prince George’s County. At all six schools, more than 80 percent of students are African American or Latino, and a significant number of students receive free and reduced lunch subsidies, a federal indicator of poverty.

Research has revealed that multiple barriers often block some students, particularly those from low-income and minority families, from the benefits of a college education.

“Traditionally,” said Day-Vines, professor of counseling and human services, “the thinking seemed to be that if we can just get children onto college campuses and exposed to colleges, they’ll end up applying.”

What actually keeps students from succeeding in college, or even applying in the first place? One obvious piece of what turns out to be a complex puzzle, said Day-Vines, is academic preparation.

“Do children have the math and reading skills they’ll need to succeed in college?” She points out that studies have shown that having completed higher math courses, including algebra two, is a “gateway to college success.”

But students can face daunting obstacles that often have nothing to do with whether they can solve a tough equation or successfully analyze a written work. These kinds of problems are often most acute, said Young, an associate professor of counseling and human development, “when the student’s family members haven’t been exposed to college themselves.”

Middle-class and affluent families, she noted, not only have more of their own financial resources, they tend to have more experience and know-how to gain access to financial aid and how to navigate both preparation for college and the application process itself.

“Our goal,” she added, “is to give students with limited resources the same opportunities as students from more affluent families.” That includes what she called more “college knowledge.”

Although the new ACCESS program will indeed get its high school students exposed to college campuses and college life, it’s aimed at addressing the entire suite of additional potential obstacles. Through workshops and tutoring sessions, the program aims to help the students increase college readiness, enhance study skills and improve standardized exam-taking and behavioral skills. But it also addresses less obvious issues, including educating apprehensive parents about financial aid availability and helping them negotiate that often daunting process of simply applying for it.

The benefits of earning a college degree are legion. Of course, college graduates earn more income, but this gap in earnings has ballooned over the years. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, American workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2013 earned a whopping 60 percent more than high school graduates, a 30 percent increase from 1979. And college graduates also earn much more in fringe benefits, ranging from health insurance to retirement plans, economic blessings that extend to entire families and into old age.

The benefits are also intergenerational. The children of college graduates are more likely to attend college. Upon graduation, they are also more likely to move up the socioeconomic ladder, with 30 percent who come from a family in a middle-income quintile moving to the top quintile, compared to 12 percent of those without a college degree who manage to do so.

College graduates also report being happier on the job and are more likely to report that their jobs are more stimulating because they involve continuing to learn new things. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 25-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree tend to be much healthier and can expect to live nearly nine years longer than those who do not have a high school diploma.

There are even broader societal benefits to having an educated population. According to the Economic Policy Institute, there is a strong correlation between the number of educated workers in a state and median hourly earnings throughout that state. In states where more than 40 percent of the population has at least a bachelor’s degree, median wages are about a third higher than in states where fewer than 30 percent hold such degrees.

The ACCESS program is aimed at tenth-grade students who are on track to graduate in 2020. It began last summer with orientations for students, parents and staff, and then a one-week Summer Preparation Institute for rising sophomores focused on preparing for the PSAT exam, which serves as a practice exam for the full-fledged SAT, the standardized test used by many colleges to help make admissions decisions. (Scores on the PSAT also can qualify students for college funding via National Merit scholarships.)

Alexis Rhames, the ACCESS site project coordinator who holds a master of science in school counseling from the School of Education, explained that the institute held in August included a different topic each day that involved not only work on math and reading skills, but ways to apply them. For instance, one session had students “designing an amusement park,” a creative process that also had them practicing such quantitative skills as mapping coordinates and graph-making.

A “High School 101” unit focused on skills that complement academic success, such as developing resiliency, learning how to network and self-advocacy in the school setting. On the test-taking side, students received advice as basic as making sure one gets a good night’s sleep before an important test, but also strategies known to improve scores on tests like the PSAT and, later, the SAT or ACT by, for instance, identifying the easiest questions to answer and systematically dealing with them first.

For students worried about test-taking anxiety, students learned, she said, that “anxiety is common and normal, and a little bit of anxiety can be a good thing.” One of the benefits of test preparation is that it can help keep anxiety in better balance.

In September, a second phase of the PSAT prep program got underway right after the school year began, with test prep and additional tutoring sessions leading up to the PSAT test administration in October. (Students can take the PSAT in both their sophomore and junior years.)

As the 2017-18 school year proceeds, the ACCESS program will include individual and group sessions with students. That includes both additional academic tutoring to help boost math and reading/writing skills, and sessions aimed at more ancillary skills such as attendance stability and self-regulated behavior.

One common issue that extends beyond individual students to their families concerns college affordability. “When a family is also in financial distress, higher education can be seen an encumbrance,” said Day-Vines. “‘How are you going to saddle our family with a financial burden?’ Maybe it just doesn’t seem to be responsible when the family has little money or resources.”

The challenge is to help not just students, but also their families understand how higher education can actually help reduce financial burdens long term and that, in the short term, help exists in the form of federal, state and institutional financial aid.

For example, if parents don’t know about or are overwhelmed by the process of filing the federal Free Application for Financial Aid, or FAFSA, colleges generally have no way to give them specific information how much aid their child can get. One 2014 study found that 2 million students who would’ve qualified for federal need-based Pell grants—this year that’s up to $5,800 in tuition aid to a four-year or  two-year college—simply never filled out the often daunting form, which can take hours to fully complete.

A 2009 experiment conducted by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Toronto suggests how dramatically college access can be improved by addressing just this one problem. In the federal income tax-filing season between January and April of that year, low-income parents in two states, Ohio and North Carolina, were offered help in filling out the FAFSA when they visited commercial tax preparers for routine help with income tax filing. Since the preparers had crucial income information at their fingertips, they were able to populate the FAFSA with most of the needed information. It generally took only about 10 more minutes for the parents and preparers to complete a form that can otherwise takes hours.

Said University of Toronto researcher Phillip Oreopoulos: “For high school seniors, just helping their parents fill out the financial aid form increased college enrollment rates by 30 percent.” (That compared to a control group that was only given general information about the FAFSA and applying to college.)

Not surprisingly, then, the ACCESS program directors have plans to host FAFSA workshops and college information sessions for parents prior to sporting events and other popular school events. The workshops will also provide translation services for parents who don’t speak English.

The ACCESS program also aims to create and enhance a “college-going culture” at each school. It will offer a graduate-level course in college counseling and additional staff development training for teachers, counselors and other staff.

Students will be offered multiple campus tours. Prince George’s County students have already visited Georgetown University as part of the August PSAT prep workshops. The program is also asking each participating school to designate a space centered on college-going. “A safe-haven,” said Young, “where students can come and get information about college and careers.”

Norma Day-Vines, professor of counseling and human services

Anita Young, associate professor of counseling and human development

Alexis Rhames, ACCESS site project coordinator and alumna of the School of Education