ASSISTANT PROFESSOR MESMIN DESTIN AND DOCTORAL STUDENT TRACY DOBIE CONDUCT A FUTURE GOALS WORKSHOP AT NICHOLS MIDDLE SCHOOL IN EVANSTON.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR KIRABO JACKSON’S RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT CERTAIN POLICIES AND PROGRAMS HELP TO PAVE THE WAY TO COLLEGE FOR DISADVANTAGED YOUTH.
Building the Mindset and Means for College
The fresh-faced sixth graders at Nichols Middle School are a long way from college. However, SESP assistant professor Mesmin Destin knows that discussions with them now can open doors to college later. To improve college access, he and other SESP faculty are doing research that can make a difference in young people's lives.
Millions of disadvantaged students lack both the mindset and the means to seek college admission. High-ability, low-income students often slip through the cracks when they hit hurdles ranging from puzzling financial aid forms to lack of academic preparation. Meanwhile, headlines announce a record-breaking pay gap between high school and college graduates—up to 98 percent—and experts extol the virtues of college.
A social psychologist, Destin targets the issue by helping students develop an aspiration for college. “We focus on motivation, but with an eye to the fact that kids and families face real structural barriers,” he says. “Within the current landscape, how can we equip kids to see their pathways to college?”
“It’s fundamentally important that kids know at an early age that college will be accessible to them,” he states. “While there’s a prevailing ideology that everyone can get to college, it makes a difference to have substance behind that, to know where supports can come from and that a lot of people utilize those supports.”
“Just knowing what financial aid is keeps kids motivated so that they’re on the pathway to college,” he says, and his studies bear this out. In local schools, Destin has distributed information to middle and high school students about college financial aid and then assessed the effect on school goals and motivation. The financial information had a significant impact, especially for students from lower-resourced homes, because it helps them envision college in a concrete way.
“Showing students that college can pay back can be motivating as well,” Destin says.
One of his studies showed that calling attention to the financial rewards of college led low-income kids not only to higher motivation for college but also to school persistence. For example, in one study, students were seven times more likely to do extra-credit assignments if they had learned about the earnings benefits of a college diploma.
As a further boost to motivation, Destin advocates family savings programs for college. Studies show that children with savings accounts feel more motivated to go to college and are more likely to enroll and graduate. “When a family is given the opportunity to enact savings, it makes a difference for the child,” he says.
FROM ACCESS TO SUCCESS
Getting into college is just the beginning for students from a lower-income background or first in their families to attend college. “Lots of things make it difficult for students to thrive if they don’t come from the dominant middle-class group,” Destin says. First-generation college students battle odds that say they’re more likely than their peers to earn low grades, drop out and feel unconnected.
Surprisingly, his research found that a one-hour discussion program was enough to make a big difference— closing by 63 percent the academic achievement gap between first-generation college students and their peers. In this intervention, entering freshmen heard useful information about college from a diverse group of upperclassmen, on topics such as courses to take and how to navigate the social scene. An important element was discussion of how students’ social class backgrounds affected their college experience.
“The key components resonated most with firstgeneration students,” Destin says. “They saw that differences were strengths in helping them to succeed. Having that message helps them feel connected, more likely to seek help.”
DRAWING STUDENTS TO COLLEGE
Like Destin, associate professor Kirabo Jackson investigates how to pave the way to college for disadvantaged youth. However, his approach as an economist is to analyze voluminous statistics from large-scale, multi-year data sets to see what affects college access. Recently he uncovered hard evidence about policies and programs to promote college attendance.
For example, Jackson and his colleagues studied an economic diversity initiative at Harvard University that stepped up financial aid and recruiting for low-income students. They found that applications from lowincome students increased by nearly 15 percent, attracting a previously untapped pool of talented students. Many of these new applicants came from high schools that typically had not encouraged their students to apply to highly selective colleges.
At the high school level, Jackson has examined how cash incentives might boost college preparedness among low-income students. Specifically, he focused on an inner-city program, the Advanced Placement Incentive Program (APIP) in Texas, which in addition to college counseling and tutoring offered cash payments to students and teachers to boost participation and passing scores in AP courses.
Tracking 290,000 students, he found that APIP increased AP course taking by 21 percent and passing AP exams by 45 percent. Long-term, the students in APIP were 20 percent more likely to stay in college through sophomore year. The program’s long-lasting positive effects even included higher average earnings when the students were adults.
“College-preparatory programs that both maintain high standards and increase participation in rigorous courses can improve college readiness,” he says, noting that the effects were most evident for Hispanic students. “The results of this study are encouraging about the potential efficacy of college-preparatory programs … at inner-city schools.”
SCHOOL SPENDING HELPS POOR KIDS
In K–12 schools, Jackson has striking new evidence that increases in school spending help to close the gap in college outcomes between poor schools and rich schools. Through exhaustive research, he investigated four decades’ worth of data on the impact of court- mandated changes in school finance.
On average, low-income children exposed to a 20 percent spending increase for their school careers completed nearly a full year of additional education after high school. While spending increases did not affect children above the poverty line, they did boost both the education levels and the adult earnings of economically disadvantaged children.
“Many have questioned whether increased school spending can really help improve the educational and lifetime outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he and his fellow authors note. Their study shows that poor kids do benefit. Jackson, a fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, conducts such research on critical education topics to advise policymakers on education policy.
MULTIPLE AVENUES TO ACCESS
In tracking down interventions to improve college access, both Destin and Jackson are following the lead of Northwestern president Morton Schapiro. A preeminent economist and co-author of College Access and College Success, Schapiro initiated Northwestern’s Good Neighbor, Great University scholarship program for qualified low-income local students. He emphasizes that colleges should offer young people the opportunity for social mobility.
Because the doors to college have been hard for many under-resourced students to open, SESP researchers are trying to solve the dilemma of how to improve college access. Soon their findings may contribute to impactful policies at multiple levels of education—to better both the mindset and means for putting students on the path to college.