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JPAM Closer Look Author Interview: Philip Oreopoulos and Reuben Ford on Keeping College Options Open

June 6, 2019 02:00 PM

Interview by JPAM, 4/4/2019

Dr. Oreopoulos and Dr. Ford's paper reports results from a school-based experiment in which college application assistance is provided during class at low-transition high schools in Ontario, Canada.  Over the course of three 60-minute workshops, all senior students were guided to 1) pick programs of interest at colleges likely to accept them; 2) actually apply to those colleges, for free; and 3) complete the financial aid application. The goal of the tested program, called LifeAfterHighSchool, was to create a real college option for exiting students to make the idea of transitioning to college easier and more salient. Using a randomized, difference-in-differences design, the seniors’ outcomes at the 43 program schools were compared to those at 43 control schools.

Among all graduating seniors, the program increased application rates from 64 to 78 percent, and college going rates by 5 percentage points. Virtually all of this increase was due to additional enrollment at two-year colleges (Ontario graduation rates from these institutions are substantially lower than they are in the U.S. and career trajectories are substantially better and usually vocational).  Among those not taking advanced-level high school courses in their senior year, college enrollment increased by 9 percentage points.

The authors found that their three-workshop program generated significant effects for a wide range of heterogeneous groups, including both males and females, those from urban and rural schools, and those with above and below average grades. While the tested approach was more intensive than other approaches informed by behavioral economics, in-class application assistance may provide a more effective approach for bridging the gap towards higher education. The paper positions the findings in context alongside other recent studies of access interventions and they review scale-up possibilities under different environments in Canada and the United States.
Phil_Oreopoulos        Robert_Ford
JPAM's interview with the authors, Philip Oreopoulos (top left) and Reuben Ford (top right), follows:

1. What inspired you to research college application assistance?
A few years earlier one of the co-authors (Oreopoulos) helped evaluate a program involving simplifying the college financial aid application process for high school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The program was known as the H&R Block FAFSA Study – low-income parents coming to H&R Block for Tax Preparation assistance with a child in their senior year of high school were offered assistance to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Since much of the information needed to complete the FAFSA was just collected to complete tax forms, parents only needed to stay in the office for an extra 10 minutes to be able to submit the form.  The following year, students randomly selected to receive this assistance were 8 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in college, a remarkable increase given the low-touch and low-cost of the program.
The results suggested college application assistance could be a cost-effective approach for raising postsecondary education participation.  So, the thinking was: if financial aid application assistance could lead to increased enrollment, why not help with the program application as well, and incorporate assistance within the high school curriculum at schools where college enrollment was low? In that way, even more students could be targeted for help.   
2. What are the main findings and how are they different than any previous studies?
Interest in the program from schools was very high.  Most principals and guidance counselors embraced the in-class effort to help all senior students, especially the waiver of application fees.  On average, the program increased application rates from 64 to 78 percent. College enrollment increased the following school year by 5.2 percentage points with virtually all of this increase in two-year community college programs. The greatest impact was for students who were not taking any university-track courses in high school: the application rate for these students increased by 24 percentage points with a 9 percentage point increase in two-year college enrolment.

The study is the first to test a program that incorporates application assistance for all as part of a high school’s curriculum.  It suggests there will be benefits from more concerted effort to offer personalized direct assistance to all graduating seniors to make wise postsecondary decisions, not just among students who are sure that they want to go or sure where they want to go.
3. Were there any challenges encountered with conducting this research and if so, how did you overcome them?
Large field experiments almost always encounter challenges in implementation.  Most of the study involved addressing small and large issues along the way.  Among them were inadequate internet connections to access the program’s website, the logistics of setting up systems to avoid students having to pay an application fee up front, avoiding students going to the cafeteria or library instead of the computer lab to attend a workshop, and getting schools to efficiently offer the program to all graduating high school seniors. 

4. What further research and/or scale up possibilities do you recommend?
The results indicate the importance of direct personal application assistance and simplification for students attending high schools where college enrollment is low, and they point to the potential scalability of assistance directly as part of a high school’s curriculum.  The region where the study was conducted is well positioned to scale up the program – unfortunately changes to government priorities and differences across ministries have limited the scope for scale up so far.  But other regions, including in the United States, are also well positioned to consider offering in-class college application assistance to all of their students.  Our results suggest that doing so will meaningfully increase college enrollment. 
5. Are there any policy implications or recommendations that you have from this research?
In general, the research supports the idea of acting earlier to ensure all students consider their life after high school and engage to make decisions in a timely manner on how best to keep their postsecondary options open. The program has learned lessons also about: how to help improve program matches prior to application; ways to encourage students to pursue rewarding career pathways (and so could promote choices in STEM or other promising fields of study); and on follow-up with students to support them with further coaching and advice during the summer before college and beyond.    

PHILIP OREOPOULOS is a Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto (e‐mail:
REUBEN FORD is a Research Director at the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (e-mail:


View the authors' JPAM article by clicking the link above.


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