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College Counseling

Virtual Advising Alone Insufficient to Make a Difference in College Admission

closeup of college application

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that virtual advising may work for some prospective college students, but targeting who it can benefit is difficult. According to the research, "many students probably need in-person and more intensive help to increase four-year enrollments."

The project, led by Meredith Phillips and Sarah Reber, both with the Department of Public Policy in the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that students randomly assigned to the virtual advising program felt more supported during their college application process and ended up applying more frequently to four-year colleges, but they weren't more likely to be accepted or to enroll to those schools.

The research used two variations on virtual college counseling, both intended to reduce the barriers to college application and enrollment for students from low-income families. Both versions relied on Virtual Student Outreach for College Enrollment (V-SOURCE), developed by EdBoost, a Los Angeles-based education nonprofit. The program delivers "information, reminders and support for applying to college" through online means.

The researchers recruited study participants during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. The 6,640 students who participated in the study were mostly female (about 67 percent) and second-generation immigrants (65 percent were U.S.-born and had at least one foreign-born parent). About half of the participants came from Hispanic, Spanish-speaking homes. Four in 10 had parents who had not completed high school, and three-quarters had self-reported grade point averages of 3.0 or higher.

Students were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One was a "business as usual" control group. The other two were variants on a 15-month college counseling intervention. Those in the "Milestones" variant had access to a website; received e-mails and text messages several times a month with tailored information linked to particular college access activities and deadlines as well as links to relevant content on the website; and were offered $20 electronic gift card rewards for finishing four milestones in the college application process. The "Complete" variant students received all of those as well as access to a personal adviser who reached out to them via e-mail, text, phone and social media.

The students assigned to the variant groups reported that "they felt more informed and supported during the college and financial aid application process than students assigned to the control group." (The count was even higher for those in the Complete program.) They were also more likely to apply to four-year schools; and those in the Complete program were more likely to apply to a selective college.

Across the board, however, the researchers found, while V-SOURCE boosted the share of students completing the college application milestones, the improvements "were modest" and they didn't "translate into higher four-year college acceptance rates or enrollment rates."

They also found that the program did have impact among Hispanic students from Spanish-speaking families. That sub-group, in particular, the report stated, "experienced larger treatment effects across a number of outcomes, including measures of feeling informed and supported during the college application process, applying to at least one four-year college, applying to at least one selective college, being accepted to a University of California (UC) campus (which are generally the more selective and better-resourced public colleges in California), and enrolling and persisting at a UC campus." Even here, though, after making adjustments for various types of comparison, the estimates were "modest and not statistically significant."

As the researchers pointed out, getting through the "complex process" of moving from high school to college is hard for many young people to do "without significant support." And while "inexpensive interventions" such as V-SOURCE, which focus on the college application process "have helped some students enroll in college," they can be difficult to target to the right candidates and may get lost in the noise of "alternative sources of information," thereby lessening the "impact" of any given program.

In sum, the use of virtual interventions by themselves isn't enough. "Ultimately, many low-income students will likely need more hands-on help with the application process or more intensive and expensive interventions addressing fundamental financial, academic and institutional barriers to successfully enroll in and complete college," the report concluded.

The digital edition of the working paper is available for a modest fee through the NBER website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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