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Effectiveness of Promising Strategies in Federal College Access Programs: Study of Enhanced Advising to Improve College Fit in Upward Bound

Contract Information

Current Status:

Final report preparation is underway.


September 2013 – February 2023



Contract Number:



Abt Associates
American Institutes for Research
Program and Policy Insight
Decision Information Research
Survey Research Management

Growing concern over college enrollment, completion, and costs has heightened interest in how to help low-income students, including those in college access programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. One concern is the extent of "under-matching," when high school students fail to enroll in any postsecondary program or in a college that is well aligned with their qualifications and talents. This study tested whether adding a low-cost, enhanced college advising approach into the federal Upward Bound program improves students' college fit and persistence. The approach included customized packages with information about college-going and costs, text messaging of key application and financial aid deadlines tailored to students' intended choice, and specialized training for the students' advisors. The study fulfills a requirement in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) to conduct a rigorous "promising practices" study.

  • Can an enhanced college advising approach improve the number of colleges to which students apply, the quality/selectivity of the colleges in which they enroll, and their persistence in college?
  • In what types of grantees is this approach most effective and with what types of students?

About 200 Upward Bound grantees that volunteered were randomly assigned in spring 2015 so that half were able to use the enhanced advising materials and training with their rising SY 2015–2016 seniors and half were not (though they did receive access to the enhanced advising later). In both sets of grantees, the evaluation team administered surveys to the rising 2015–2016 seniors in spring 2015 (end of junior year) before grantees were randomly assigned, and then again in spring 2016 (end of senior year) to collect information about their college plans. The students' college enrollment was tracked through 2018. The evaluation assessed the impacts of the enhanced advising on 1) early indicators, such as the number of college applications submitted and students' completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and 2) if and where students enrolled in college (college "fit" or "match") and whether they were still enrolled after three years.

The results from the final report examining the effects of a bundle of advising strategies called Find the Fit indicate:

  • Despite shifting where students applied, Find the Fit did not reduce the rate of college undermatch. An earlier report from the study found that students offered Find the Fit were more likely to apply to more selective colleges compared to students in regular UB advising projects. However, about 39 percent of students in Find the Fit projects and about 41 percent of students in regular UB advising projects undermatched, meaning that they either did not attend college or enrolled in a college that was less selective than the level to which they could be admitted.
  • Find the Fit led some students to choose more selective colleges regardless of undermatching, with no clear negative consequences. Students in Find the Fit projects were 3 percentage points more likely than those in regular UB advising projects to attend colleges at the highest selectivity levels. These impacts did not seem to result in higher college costs or to change the share of students transferring to a less selective college or dropping out.
  • Find the Fit did not increase the share of students who persisted in or completed college. A similar share of students in Find the Fit projects and regular UB advising projects (52 percent versus 49 percent) were continuously enrolled into the third fall after graduating high school (or completed a credential).

Getting students to attend more selective colleges was meant to position them to reap the potential educational and career benefits of attending institutions with more instructional and financial resources, more academically prepared peers, and strong reputations. If college selectivity is indeed related to better college outcomes, broader effects on college selectivity than those found in this study would be needed to subsequently shift longer-term college outcomes. The findings from this study suggest lessons for improving college advising for students from low-income families and raise questions that remain to be answered.