Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

FAll 2014

Professor James Rosenbaum

Professor James Rosenbaum found that a “college coaching” program in Chicago Public Schools had a strong impact on the likelihood of students attending college.

College ‘Coaching’ Boosts Access for High School Students

By Ed Finkel
College ‘Coaching’ Boosts Accessfor High School Students

How can educators and policymakers encourage lower-income urban high school students to apply for college — and any financial assistance they might need to get there? How can they help such students then succeed in reaching their goals? These questions have bedeviled teachers, counselors and education thought leaders for decades.

The research of SESP professor James Rosenbaum and two graduate students, funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Council on Great City Schools, has found promising results from a “college coaching” model used in 12 Chicago public schools for the past decade.

Their findings helped Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials decide to keep the program, in a system where 83 percent of students plan to attend college but only 64 percent actually do. A coach in each of the schools works to engage students, supervise them as they fill out applications and financial aid forms, explain how to think through their college options, and provide needed help and encouragement along the way.

Rosenbaum’s research, conducted with SESP student Jennifer Stephan (PhD10), who’s now with the American Institutes for Research, and Michelle Naffziger, a sociology PhD student at the time, found that the coaching program succeeded in its aims. Statistically, it had a very strong impact on the likelihood of CPS students attending college.

Helping the hardest to help

“It particularly helps those who are hardest to help, students in low [socioeconomic status] high schools,” says Rosenbaum, who presented his findings in May at a policy briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. “Students who go to school where very few people plan to go to college benefit evenmore. The program is helping to reduce inequality.

The story today is mostly, if you look at the statistics, that the college process increases social inequality, increases disadvantage. This program does the opposite.”

CPS officials including then-CEO Ron Huberman were so impressed that they soon decided not to cut the program. “They were thrilled,” Rosenbaum says. “It was this remarkable experience where two doctoral students were presenting PhD dissertation research, and their findings within five minutes caused [Huberman] to say, ‘This is impressive.’ They really do listen to data, and they really do respond.”

Rosenbaum has been gathering ethnographic and administrative data since 2005 about the students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Because CPS maintained student records and made them available to researchers, he has been able to make comparisons over long periods of time and across the entire school system.

Coaching for action

The SESP researchers found that students in the 12 schools saw gains in college placement and success over and above those of students in CPS generally, Rosenbaum says.

“The program focused on getting students to do certain college actions,” says Rosenbaum. It encouraged them to apply to three or more colleges, and also to test how much each college offered in financial aid. It encouraged and assisted students in filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which asks complex questions. “The coach, by changing those actions, was increasing student enrollment.”

The coaching program also encouraged students to attend four-year rather than two-year colleges. “That emphasis is likely to encourage college completion, which happens more often in four-year schools,” he says. “Completion rates in the City Colleges [of Chicago] are very, very low.”

In addition to data analysis, the research included qualitative observation. In particular, Naffziger spent “hundreds of hours” watching the coaches in action with their students, according to Rosenbaum.

“She looked at how they made it happen,” he says. “The coaches were very effective in reaching out and showing students they could go to college. They taught them critical skills that middle-class kids might already know. How do you make plans? How do you make choices? How do you present yourself in interviews at a college fair? Middle-class people typically have more experience at these things.”

Practical planning

While wealthy suburban districts often have dedicated college counselors, a large, high-poverty urban district like CPS seldom does, Rosenbaum says. What students miss out on most is the practical planning assistance. “It’s a sequence of steps, task management and organization, that you have to plan and make work.”

Students generally need someone to walk them through that process, and few of their parents have had the college-going experience, Rosenbaum says. “The coaches are not certified counselors. But they’re good at reaching out to and working with young people,” he says. “We like to think counselors should be doing that, but counselors do so many other tasks that they rarely have time.” Counselors’ tasks include helping students choose classes, helping deal with their personal problems, and monitoring the halls and lunchrooms.

Rosenbaum’s research has shown that disadvantaged students have difficulties with three cultural tasks: seeing the pros and cons of different college options, figuring out which options match their interests and needs, and determining what colleges value in admissions—and thus how to present themselves.

“Many aspects of the college choice process that middle-class students take for granted pose difficulties for disadvantaged students,” according to his published research.


Carol Lee

While college counselors and coaches play a major role in guiding students through the process of applying to college, teachers too can make a significant contribution. This is particularly true in lower-income communities, says Carol Lee, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and professor of African American studies at Northwestern, who has been an educator since 1966.

“In low-income communities, where parents themselves perhaps are more likely not to have been to college, teachers and counselors can be very helpful as students work through the college application process,” Lee says. Specifically, teachers can assist students early in their high school years with self-monitoring their progress in relation to the kinds of colleges they’re interested in, as well as later as they’re completing applications and writing personal statements.

Teachers and schools can help students not only envision future opportunities for themselves but also “understand the importance of grit and persistence and effort in high school,” she says. “That’s what’s going to be required to get them through college.” In addition, teachers can help kids “shape personal goals and learn about what kinds of personal goals college can make accessible.”

Lee has taught in one role or another for her entire career, primarily at the high school level but also for four years in the City Colleges of Chicago, working in predominantly lower-income African American schools. She is a founder and chairman of the board of directors at the Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools. In part because of her research, she spends a substantive amount of time at the high school campus of the Shabazz network, DuSable Leadership Academy, where students sometimes seek out her advice and counsel.

“A number of them have come to me to talk about the various challenges they’re wrestling with in making these decisions,” she says. “It’s been a fascinating experience as a former high school teacher myself.” She appreciates the significance of a teacher’s ability to develop meaningful personal relationships with kids, acting almost as a parent. “You don’t replace the parent, but you become this other voice in their heads. They are able to come to you for advice at a very pivotal transition point in their lives.”

Lee draws inspiration from Eugene Lockhart, the “extraordinary” college and career coach at Betty Shabazz, where most years 100 percent of graduates move on to college. Lockhart encourages students to stay on track to graduation, helps them fill out financial aid forms and sometimes convinces reluctant parents of the need for college. He also works with personal contacts at various colleges to advocate for kids. On occasion, he has even driven recent graduates to college to get them settled in. “He epitomizes what it is that teachers can do,” says Lee.