James Rosenbaum’s Studies Find Ways to Help Disadvantaged Students Access College

James Rosenbaum’s Studies Find Ways to Help Disadvantaged Students Access College

James Rosenbaum

Recent studies by professor James Rosenbaum help to chart ways to assist disadvantaged students with access to college. His research identifies the cultural barriers in the college process that give low-income students trouble and the ways that new types of counseling can assist them. Disadvantaged students are less likely to attend four-year colleges and less likely to attend selective colleges, even when they’re qualified.

One study Rosenbaum conducted with Michelle Naffziger at two public high schools found that disadvantaged students struggle with three cultural tasks in the college application process. These are seeing the pros and cons of the various college options, knowing how to identify which options match their own interests and needs, and knowing what colleges value in admissions and how to present themselves accordingly. 

“Many aspects of the college choice process that middle-class students take for granted pose difficulties for disadvantaged students,” the researchers say. For example, because of limited experience one student didn’t realize the importance of reporting a great honor because it wasn’t praised at home, and other students believed they had to delay college until they saved up the money for four years of tuition.

Through a "postsecondary coach program" in the schools, youth workers explain and facilitate the college process, acting as “cultural capital translators” to help students acquire information and skills that colleges require. Rosenbaum and Naffziger discovered how these translators helped students overcome barriers to college. The college coach is a particularly good way to convey needed information because the coach interacts with students in small groups at the time that they are doing their college search, according to the researchers.

Another large-scale study by Rosenbaum and Jennifer Stephan (PhD10) follows up on this policy change that could improve college access. Their study followed nearly all Chicago public school seniors through the fall after high school, looking at whether a new counseling model aimed at creating social capital improves college enrollment.

Rosenbaum and Stephan found that college coaches improve the types of colleges students attend by getting students to complete key actions, with the most disadvantaged students benefiting most. Students at coach schools were significantly more likely to attend four-year colleges, and they were more likely to enroll in college. “This suggests that targeting social capital might improve the high school-to-college transition for disadvantaged students,” the researchers note.

Unlike the traditional counseling model, college coaches use innovative strategies to engage students in social interactions to improve college enrollment outcomes, the researchers point out. These include support in the enrollment process, detailed and ongoing help in the process, and monitoring of the completion of actions.

The most surprising result is the benefits for more disadvantaged students. Coaches appear to affect enrollment outcomes by increasing the number of students applying to three or more colleges and completing the FAFSA.

“These findings support the inference that social capital deficits, not just academic and financial deficits, are barriers to college for disadvantaged students,” the authors conclude.

Based on these research findings, Rosenbaum, Stephan and Naffziger made five presentations to the Consortium on Chicago School Research and various audiences in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), including former CPS CEO Ron Huberman. Because of these results, Huberman decided to expand the postsecondary coach program, since it was cost-effective in improving enrollment at four-year colleges, a key goal of CPS. The results illustrate the value of data-driven policy making, which is been a central focus at CPS, the Chicago Consortium and Northwestern University. The study was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Council on Great City Schools, which published a monograph on the study. 

Stephan, who is a researcher at the American Institutes of Research, received her PhD in human development and social policy in 2010, and Naffziger received her PhD in sociology in 2011.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/2/13