College access and readiness supports

Strategy overview

  • Eliminating barriers: College access supports typically serve high school or post-secondary students from underrepresented groups, such as first-generation students, students from families with low incomes, and English language learners. Programs offer a wide range of services, which often include some combination of academic courses, non-academic college preparedness skills, financial counseling, and more.
  • Delivering the model: Many program services are anchored by a dedicated coach, who may be an on-site employee at a high school or college or off-site as an employee of a nonprofit program. Coaches typically spend the majority of their time in individual sessions with students or families, offering step-by-step guidance on the college admissions, enrollment, and persistence. Coaches may also participate in programming at local high schools, on college campuses, and among community-based organizations.
  • Accumulating college credit during high school: Dual enrollment and early college programs are high-intensity practices within the college access space. These programs, which allow high school students to take college classes, have a range of benefits. In addition to accumulating college credit (often heavily subsidized or tuition-free), students gain familiarity with the academic and emotional rigor of college, which can ease transitions when they enroll full-time.
  • Helping families prepare financially: College access supports often focus on the most common barrier: finances. This can be done through a range of supports, including direct scholarships for tuition; stipends for college costs (like transportation or books); financial planning assistance; referrals to external funding streams; and administrative assistance with key forms, like FAFSA.
  • Supplementing services: Depending on the scope of the program, specialized academic or non-academic services may also be included, such as access to financing, tutoring, test prep, mentoring, and more. If a program does not include such services, coaches are often responsible for cultivating a robust referral network to ensure that student and family needs can be met.
Target Population
High school-aged children, Students enrolled in post-secondary education
Key Stakeholders
District and School Leadership, Nonprofit Partners, Counseling Staff/Volunteer Coordinator, Teachers, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Proven

Multiple rigorous evaluations of college access and readiness programs have demonstrated positive, statistically significant effects on college enrollment and completion.

  • A 2022 research synthesis found that well-designed college access programs are associated with increases in college enrollment and graduation.

  • A 2019 systematic review found that outreach programs that include active counseling or simplifying college application processes are effective in increasing students’ access to higher education.

  • A 2012 meta-analysis estimated that college access programs, on average, increase enrollment by 12 percent.

How do college access and readiness supports impact economic mobility?

  • Accessing college: College access and readiness supports are designed to help students enroll and graduate college. Obtaining a postsecondary degree positions individuals for high-quality employment and higher lifetime earnings. Individuals with a post-secondary degree are also more likely to experience better health outcomes, are less likely to be incarcerated, and are able to spend more time with their children.
  • Increasing degree attainment: College access and readiness supports typically are designed for underserved student populations, such as those from families with low incomes. Postsecondary degree attainment is particularly low across the country for such students, perpetuating a cycle of socioeconomic stagnation.

Best practices in implementation

  • Address financial barriers: While college access programs can address a range of structural barriers, financial concerns are often at the forefront of a student and family’s decision-making process. Programs should consider addressing financial barriers from all angles, including direct funding, financial counseling, and informational resources that explain costs in clear terms. Impactful evidence-based programs help families chart a path to affording college. Frequent communication of upcoming deadlines and requirements is essential.
  • Remove administrative barriers: In addition to affordability, college access is often hindered by significant administrative barriers, such as enrolling for entrance exams, completing applications, securing recommendations, and planning for the transition from high school to college (i.e. transportation and moving). To increase access to college enrollment and graduation, programs should develop clear strategies to address these types of common logistical hurdles.
  • Make the program comprehensive: The strongest models include a combination of evidence-based practices that address financial, logistical, and academic obstacles to college enrollment and graduation. A single point of contact, typically a coach on campus, should be trained to deliver a wide ranges of services.
  • Start early: College access supports are most effective when they are introduced to students and their families years before college enrollment; many programs launch as soon as a student begins high school. Other programs, like early college and dual enrollment, enable students to access college and increase persistence years before graduation. Doing so allows families to better develop financial plans, lets students shape their high school experiences to support their postsecondary goals, and helps schools set expectations for college enrollment and graduation.
  • Cultivate partnerships: Build sustainable, long-term partnerships with individual coaches, schools, and community-based organizations to identify and recruit students who face significant barriers to college entry, such as low-income or first-generation students. Such partners may also be able to better inform strategies and tactics used by coaches, such as priorities for individual sessions or recruiting tactics.

Evidence-based examples

Providing high school students in foster care with coaching sessions to determine post-secondary goals
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Supporting first-generation students to enroll in and graduate from college 
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Strong
Feature small learning communities in low-income high schools, combining academic and technical or career curricula
High school graduation Post-secondary enrollment and graduation Stable high-quality employment
Proven
Online learning platform and community providing subsidized courses and learning materials to students 
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Strong
Provides Detroit Public Schools graduates with scholarships to attend local colleges tuition-free and a range of supports once they are enrolled
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Strong
Enabling and supporting high school students to take for-credit college classes
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Partnership between high schools and local postsecondary institutions enabling students to take up to two years of for-credit courses
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Individualized case management, mentoring and support services to help students graduate from high school and enroll in college
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation High school graduation
Strong
Provides technical assistance and counseling to families attempting to fill out college financial aid forms 
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Career and academic support service programs that recruit and train students who are typically underrepresented in health careers
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation Stable high-quality employment
Proven
Provides low-income students in early high school with financial aid conditional on continuing their education
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Comprehensive support services focused on community college completion and transition to a career or 4-year institution
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Promising
Online educational materials to supplement classroom learning
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation High school graduation
Promising
Financial, academic, and support services for college students
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Promising
Financial aid for post-secondary students conditional on achieving certain academic benchmarks
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Promising
Provide coaching and classes focusing on standardized test materials and test-taking skills
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Proven
Programming focused on college life and resources, academic advising, early introduction to college-level subjects, and training in skills necessary for college delivered to students in the summer before their first term
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Strong
Provides counseling and other support students to students at risk of failing to matriculate in the months between high school graduation and college enrollment
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Strong
Provides students with text reminders to complete financial aid forms
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Promising
Individualized coaching for low-income students to review financial need and academic and employment goals
Post-secondary enrollment and graduation
Promising