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Author: Don Obrien

To level the playing field in college completion, invest in advising


The scaled-back version of president Biden’s signature Build Back Better plan only heightens the importance of investing limited resources in evidence-based strategies. Our research suggests that college advising models can close the gap in degree attainment between academically-prepared students from the bottom and top quartile of family income and substantially reduce racial gaps.

In a new working paper released Thursday, we show that intensive college advising leads to large increases in the share of low-income high school seniors that earn their bachelor’s degree.

The college advising program we study, “Bottom Line,” operates in several cities across the U.S.; prior to the start of senior year in high school, we worked with Bottom Line to randomly assign applicants to the program to either receive Bottom Line advising or to a control group that did not get advising from Bottom Line, but who were free to access other college advising supports in their schools or communities.

Students randomly assigned to Bottom Line were 16 percent more likely than control group students to earn a bachelor’s degree within five years.

As importantly, students are graduating from colleges and universities with higher average earnings and higher rates of mobility among their graduates.

In addition to increasing bachelor’s degree attainment, related research shows that comprehensive supports for community college students, like the Accelerated Study in Associate’s Programs (ASAP), can lead to substantially more students earning associate’s degrees.

What’s especially notable is that Bottom Line appears equally effective across sites and for students of various backgrounds. Bottom Line also primarily serves students of color, so — if scaled broadly — intensive advising could increase both economic mobility and lead to greater racial equity in college degree attainment.

One criticism is that these programs are expensive. Bottom Line continues to advise students into college, and the cost per student served is approximately $4,000. We find, however, that the program is twice as cost-effective at increasing degree attainment as is offering students additional financial aid. Increasing evidence moreover demonstrates that lower-cost, technology-enabled approaches to providing students with advising are not nearly as effective at increasing enrollment quality or completion as are intensive advising models like Bottom Line.

As the Biden administration and Congress confront hard choices about what to cut from the Build Back Better plan, shifting resources to intensive college advising could be a cost-effective strategy to leveling the playing field for low-income and underrepresented groups, resulting in higher rates of college completion, improved social mobility, and a more productive workforce.

Ben Castleman is associate professor of education at University of Virginia and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab.

Andrew Barr is associate professor of economics at Texas A&M.





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