Program Innovation

Efforts to Increase College Access: If You Build It, Will They Come?

If demography is destiny, then by 2022, the destiny for many colleges and universities will be an influx of traditional-aged students from lower income levels and more diverse backgrounds. Many institutions are thinking about what it will mean to serve students to whom they’ve historically struggled to give access to a college education. Right now, we’re seeing high-profile, technology-based initiatives that are designed to provide better access for students from low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority groups. Eduventures believes that while these initiatives represent a step in the right direction, they will fall short of their goals unless they complement their efforts with strong grassroots partnerships. In recent months, the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy to provide free SAT test prep and The Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success’ tools to improve the college application process have splashed across the headlines. Both initiatives have stated goals of addressing issues of college access. The implementation and potential consequences of these initiatives remains unclear, however, and they have been met with some cynicism and skepticism. The jury is out as to whether these initiatives will bear real fruit in increasing access to college for underserved populations. Last week, Salman Khan gave the keynote address at the yearly gathering of college and high school admissions counselors (NACAC) in San Diego. Khan discussed the inception of Khan Academy and its mission of free education for all, always. He discussed the numerous ways students use Khan Academy as a learning tool to supplement or catalyze their high school education. Perhaps wisely, he did not focus his talk on the relationship with the College Board, but he did touch on it briefly. Essentially, Khan Academy is offering free personalized adaptive learning for the new incarnation of the SAT. In addition to SAT prep, Khan Academy also offers information to help students prepare for the college admissions process, such as making high school count, exploring college options, and paying for college. Those with a more cynical view of the partnership for free test prep suspect that the College Board is seeking to rebrand itself as the preeminent college access organization. With this initiative coming at a time when standardized testing is under increasing scrutiny and the College Board’s main competitor, the ACT, is making strong inroads into high schools across the country, some question how serious the organization is about the mission itself. The heart of any successful program is its implementation, usage, and ultimate impact. All of these tools address a real need for underserved populations, if students will in fact use it. To that end, Khan Academy has developed a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America as a way of bringing the tools to the attention of underserved students. But is that enough? On the closing day of NACAC, attendees packed the room at a session that discussed the other high-profile initiative to improve college access: The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. The Coalition is comprised of a group of public and private institutions that make need-blind admissions decisions and meet each student’s full need. This group presented its plans for a set of online tools designed to help students, especially low-income students, navigate the application and financial aid process beginning as early as ninth grade. These tools include a digital portfolio, a platform for collaboration, and an application portal. The tools are designed to bring the entirety of a student’s high school experience to bear in college decisions. High school guidance counselors in attendance expressed many concerns, namely that this initiative will make high school one long college application process instead of a precollege learning experience. Additionally, the tools might make a complicated process even harder to navigate and have the unintended effect of giving sophisticated students (and parents) who know how to navigate complicated systems an additional advantage. Finally, the institutions in the Coalition are not the institutions that generally serve the bulk of low-income, first-generation, or diverse students. These students are more likely to attend four-year and community colleges that are unable to be need-blind and meet a student’s full need. Those with a more cynical take believe that the tool is mostly a way for the Coalition to break away from The Common Application. In either case, these two high-profile initiatives bring technology and tools to real problems, but they have yet to illustrate how they will enable actual students to use the tools effectively. Building the technology platform is usually the easy part; getting the right students to use the technology will be the hard part. As the College Board, with Khan, and the Coalition bring these initiatives to light, they should heed the work of other organizations that have been successful, albeit at a smaller scale, in this domain. For example, UAspire, a non-profit organization that helps underserved students find pathways to and through college, is an organization that understands the value of community partnerships in reaching underserved students. Its curriculum, beginning in 7th grade and continuing through college completion, covers preparation, affordability, and success in college. UAspire has built this curriculum through partnerships with local school districts and the business community. Here in Boston, it is available to every student in the Boston Public Schools. It has built its model on personal interactions with counselors who work with students and is learning to scale its model using text messaging through Signal Vine and delivering its content online. It is using technology, but the relationships come first. While the College Board and the Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success are building technology platforms, they will need to overcome cynicism by building partnerships and community relationships that drive the right students, those who need equitable access to higher education. Until that happens, there is a good chance that they will fall short of their goals. Let’s be cautiously optimistic about grand gestures to build college access and remember the many lessons of working with underserved populations. If you build it, they will not come without grassroots community involvement. Let’s invest in partnerships and communities as much as we invest in technology.    

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