Can College Visits Improve College Aspirations? Findings From A Randomized Experiment.

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For students who have parents that have gone to college or who grow up around college campuses, it is likely a given they will at least apply to college and very likely attend. However, for students who come from rural areas or places far away from a university campus there may be less of an expectation to attend college, or even a barrier due to unfamiliarity.

Getting more students onto college campuses has become an important policy concern, especially due to the economic benefits of attending college and the need to improve the social mobility of disadvantaged students. However, maybe first-generation students lack the “cultural capital” or cultural knowledge and social assets they need to effectively navigate the college application and attendance process. Perhaps not understanding what it is actually like to be on a college campus presents a nontrivial psychological barrier to students seeing themselves on campus in the future.

So what happens when you expose underrepresented students to college visits and allow them to set foot on and experience campus? That’s exactly what researchers Elise SwansonKatherine Kopotic, Gema Zamarro, Jonathan N. Mills, Jay P. Greene, and Gary Ritter did in a recent paper just published in AERA Open titled “An Evaluation of the Educational Impact of College Campus Visits: A Randomized Experiment.”

The researchers recruited a total of 1,478 students in participating schools and randomized students within schools to either a treatment or control condition. The control group got an information packet about college, whereas the treatment condition got an information packet and visited a flagship university three times during the 8th grade.

These visits included a variety of on-campus activities. In brief, the first visit included a college information session and campus tour, the second visit focused on exposing students to different departments and degree paths available, and the third visit aimed to foster a sense of campus spirit by having students attend a university baseball game or compete in an on-campus scavenger hunt. More detail on the full intervention can be found in the paper.

The authors summarize their findings in this way: “We provide some of the first rigorous evidence that an intervention designed to introduce prospective students to the experience of college through field trips to a college campus can improve students’ knowledge about college (effect size of 0.14), self-efficacy related to attending and succeeding in college (effect size of 0.15), grit (effect size of 0.12), and academic diligence (proxied by item nonresponse; effect size of 0.21) above the effect of providing written information about college. We also find that campus visits may make students more likely to engage in conversations about college options and preparation with school personnel (effect size of 0.16). Our estimates represent small- to medium-sized effects within the literature on education interventions.”

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Gema Zamarro notes that “The study suggests that visiting campus and interacting with current students, faculty, and university staff increased decided behaviors that help better prepare students for college.”

The authors conclude: “To close opportunity gaps in postsecondary enrollment and degree completion, researchers should find scalable interventions that can be implemented across a variety of contexts. In this study, we explore the ability of a relatively low-cost intervention—three field trips to a local public university—to affect student attitudes and behaviors toward college. Our findings regarding the short-run impacts of this intervention suggest that this field-trip-based intervention could meaningfully affect student college decisions and preparation. This approach could be adopted by school districts interested in promoting college access for their students and could find support among universities interested in increasing their socioeconomic diversity or student population overall.”

Lead author Elise Swanson notes that the research team will follow all these students through high school into college to analyze the impact on long-term outcomes.

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