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AYPF and MDRC Discuss the College Match Program

June 19, 2013 01:17 PM

A recent forum hosted by the American Youth Policy Forum and MDRC highlighted the findings from the promising College Match Program (CMP) in Chicago. The discussion, held on June 14, 2013 in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, focused primarily on helping students gain admittance to the college that represents the best academic fit for their skills and abilities. The concept is known as “match” and forms the basis of the program. The CMP model is an intervention of sorts, combating the problem of “undermatching,” where students are currently enrolling in colleges that are less selective than the kind they are qualified to enter. “Because of undermatching, research shows that more students end up dropping out of college because they are not being challenged,” said MDRC Senior Research Associate D. Crystal Byndloss.

Presenters at the forum included Byndloss; Michael McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation; Greg Darnieder, Senior Advisor to the Secretary on the College Access Initiative, US Department of Education; and Mariana Saucedo, College Match Advisor, DeVry Advantage Academy High School and Lincoln Park High School.

“The bigger the challenge, the more likely you are to succeed. That’s not intuitive,” said McPherson, co-author of the 2009 critically acclaimed book Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. “You would think, ‘If I want to graduate, I’ll go to the easiest school I can find,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. If you’re strong and go to a more challenging place, you’ll do better. If you’re weak and go to a more challenging place, you’ll do better.”

Initially begun in three pilot schools within the Chicago Public School system, the program has shown the beginnings of success in helping low-income and first-generation students choose a college that best meets their needs. The forum discussed CMP’s objectives and operation and looked at the implications for policy, considering opportunities for sustainability and scaling up.

President Barack Obama stated as one of the nation’s goals to produce ten million new college graduates by 2020. This goal would help produce the “best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.” To reach such a target requires the nation to build a better pipeline to and through college. One avenue is to help academically successful students make wise choices regarding their college options. By doing so, the payoff of such an investment of public resources would bring capable students, who often end up not graduating or following through due to an imperfect academic fit, into the workforce with a proper education skillset. The CMP may prove to be a relatively modest investment that produces significant social benefits for students and their communities down the road.

The CMP targets a population that has been overlooked by many similar initiatives: moderately to high-achieving students who are prepared for college but in need of advice and support to choose the correct college that matches their skills and abilities. CMP places young adult advisors—often only a few years removed from the students’ age—within high schools to assist these students in finding a college that meets their academic, social, and personal needs. The program tests the theory that students who enroll in a match college are more likely to flourish, persevere, and graduate.

The MDRC program is not focused on getting students into the most elite schools and universities. The CMP primarily seeks to increase the rate at which students apply to, are admitted to, and enroll in match colleges that fit their academic and personal profile. In many cases, CMP works with students who expected to enroll in a two-year community college, or did not plan to attend college at all. The program advisers help students understand that a selective four-year college is a practical, affordable, and superior option.

“Half the time I would tell the students, ‘the stuff I’m teaching you, no one told me,’” said Saucendo. “We really are able to work intensely with the student to get them where they have to go. There’s also strong follow-up to make sure they do what we ask them to do.”

Students targeted by CMP are from a relatively small percentage of high school students who represent the “low hanging fruit” of the larger population struggling to reach and complete college. By assisting these low-income and first-generation students in choosing the best college match, MDRC hopes that the lessons learned from the program will support future efforts to help a much larger student population make wise college choices.

The CMP model in Chicago incorporated students with a GPA greater than 3.0 and an ACT score greater than 20, who were also from low-income homes. Each school provided a caseload of 75-100 students. The advisers, who were close in age to the students and from similar backgrounds, provided several services for their assigned students, including: individualized advising; college, scholarship, and financial aid application support; financial award letter review and decision-making support; and parent outreach. These advisers focused primarily on a “match list” of selective colleges and universities in the region.

From the pilot program and subsequent year, a few operational lessons were evident. “Match” had to be the primary message and engaging the parents early and often with the message was critical to the student’s success in the program. Advisers needed to focus on helping students make informed choices about their best college “fit.” Also important was early application for financial aid, to help develop a larger pool of match options.

Initial results were promising. Students are applying to more selective colleges than before, where 88% now apply to a very/highly/most competitive college. Acceptance rates have increased in the CMP schools, while dropping in comparison institutions. In 2011, CMP schools saw a slightly higher percentage of students enrolled in highly selective colleges than in 2008, though improvements are also evident in comparison schools.

Byndloss indicated the pilot program in Chicago will be expanding to New York in the fall of this year. “Possible next steps include seeing if the program can be expanded in other contexts, incorporating technology into advising services, and training existing college advising staff on match,” she concluded. Newer technology, such as remote or online accessibility, should be incorporated within the advising services to better assist in making the best matches and fit decisions for the students.

Darnieder recommended that an effort should be made to train existing college advising staff within the match participant schools, to provide a better integrated “hand-off” as students move from high school to their college choice. “One of the key challenges we have is very few of the 10,000 counselors we have in this country have had a course on how to do college access,” he said. “We have a workforce that gets hired to do this work but hasn’t been trained to do it.”

MDRC’s expansion of CMP is poised to reach a larger number of students and provide a more rigorous analysis of the program’s effects. Results such as college enrollment, persistence, and graduation outcomes for academically similar students, along with a larger sample size, will provide reliable assessment of the cost per student of the CMP model. MDRC has been approached by several funders interested in bringing the program to urban, suburban, and rural high schools in other states. The CMP model has functioned well as a partnership between public schools and the private, nonprofit sector and offers potential for national replication in the future.


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