College Counseling and the Achievement Gap

Closing the black-white – and the rich-poor – achievement gap is a frequent topic of conversation on this blog. Economist Christopher Avery takes a look (ungated version here) at one intervention aimed at closing the gap: providing college counselors for high-achieving, low-income students. The counseling didn’t have much effect on application quality, but Avery did find that “students offered counseling were 7.9 percentage points more likely than students not offered counseling to enroll in colleges ranked by Barron’s as ‘Most Competitive,’ though this effect was not statistically significant.” One big problem with the pilot program? Over one-third of the students matched with college counselors didn’t follow through on all of their counselor’s advice. “[O]ur statistical analysis suggests that counseling would have had approximately twice as much effect if all students matched with counselors had followed the advice of the counselors,” concludes Avery. So how about combining counseling with a few well-placed nudges? [%comments]

Ian Kemmish

How do they arrive at the figure "approximately twice as much"? An inability to take advice from a qualified person suggests character traits that, even had they gone to the good colleges, would likely have meant they would have trouble completing the courses. In turn that suggests that the intervention is happening years too late, and band aids like "nudges" won't do any good.


How was their drop-out rate? Just because they were convinced to go to a better, possibly more expensive college doesn't mean that was necessarily the right idea.

Steve Nations

I agree with Ian K.

Isn't their failure to follow through on their counselor's advice part of the results of the study, rather than a problem in the study?


What would matter is if it impact college completion rates, or at least how long students persist in college.

It doesn't matter if they go to more selective colleges if the drop out faster.


Take a look at Strive for College, a non-profit looking to help change this by having volunteer current college students work with high school seniors.

Justin James

@Ian (#1) -

Exactly what I was going to say. The last thing the college system (and the taxpayers subsidzing the loans, and the students taking them out) need is an influx of people who can't be bothered to even apply to college without "nudges".



J.Ja - the last thing they need is students who are pushed into college? Really? Most college students have parents who "nudged" them towards applying to college, often starting at a young age. These are the students whose family's have no idea even how to apply to college.

Justin James

@DJ (#7) -

Yes, really. There's a difference between me telling my 3 year old son that if he wants to be an astronaut, he needs to study hard, not go to jail, and join the US Air Force (yes, we had this talk today). It's another thing to have to push an 18 year old *adult* (that's the age of a senior) to do something that will probably make the difference between remaining low income and achieving middle or even upper class status. If you are old enough to apply for college and don't want it enough to do the paperwork, you don't belong in college. The study gave them counselors to help them, who were giving them useful advice. If they were too lazy to follow the advice, they don't have what it takes to make it in college or the workforce. Maybe when they are struggling to pay their bills they'll wish they could be bothered to spend a few hours filling out paperwork.



Really people? Just because 30% of 17 year-olds didn't listen to an adult you are going to make these assumptions?

This is an excellent study, but by NOT addressing the issue of not listening the author does himself a disservice. Students who choose not to listen likely did so rationally-we do not know what other factors, what information and misinformation trusted sources were giving them, or if the counselors (used to working with upper middle class students based on the quotes) were not able to adjust their style to the constraints which poor high school students face.


Concerning nudges.

I'm a high school teacher and my world revolves around nudges. The truth is that most students from any background would not apply to college without nudges coming from peer pressure, what they read or see on tv, from family and from teachers. Cultural and environmental factors play an enormous role, and sadly parental involvement for kids on the wrong side of the gap is often lacking. Perhaps this is the nudge gap.

We can blame parents, urban schools, neighborhoods, culture and media, but it doesn't accomplish anything. Seems to me like the actions taken in the survey are non-trivial. Selective colleges have higher graduation rates---their matriculated students are immersed in a culture of graduation.

Motivation is a learned behavior. This is a step in the right direction.


The last thing we need in college are students who are not intellectually capable, or do not have the necessary level of intelligence, regardless of skin color, race or gender. The next step is logically quotas and a lowering of academic standards.

Eileen Wyatt

Wait a second. The researchers counted as "receiving counseling" every student who was *offered* it, regardless of whether the student accepted?

So what we actually have here is that being selected for the study -- NOT having the counseling itself -- might, maybe, sorta have correlated with enrolling in more selective colleges, only the effect wasn't statistically significant, so perhaps not?

And from that we extrapolate that following all of the counselors' advice would have had a significant effect?

The researchers could have gotten the same results and a cookie by just asking their moms.

First Time Caller

." One big problem with the pilot program? Over one-third of the students matched with college counselors didn't follow through on ALL of their counselor's advice. "

why is that a problem? They are called counselors not decision makers..but wait there's more...

if over one-third did not follow ALL the advice, does that imply that about two-thrids followed ALL of the counselors' advice? WOW how many HS seniors follow ALL the advice of anyone?


but Avery did find that "students offered counseling were 7.9 percentage points more likely than students not offered counseling to enroll in colleges ranked by Barron's as 'Most Competitive,' though this effect was not statistically significant.

So our best guess is that the 7.9 percent difference was likely due to random chance of the sample selection but we never understood that part of statistics anyway.


I'm not against the counseling. Most of these kids have little input from their parents since very few of these kids have parents who went to college themselves. Its not so much that the parents aren't "involved" but that they don't know what to tell the kids on their own. They don't know the ins & outs of applying to college.
Yes, a kid might "fill in an application" (not really all that easy with need for essay, etc.) but if few of their peers are doing it, their parents can't advise them, etc, what's wrong with a knowledgeable counselor helping (nudging)?


It's shocking, but some kids in tough neighborhoods don't even know about the SAT's. One charity working to help inner city kids with preparing for college admissions is UCAN:

Eric M. Jones

I'm whitebread, but when I look back on those daze....I wish someone would have figure out the strongest possible nudge for me. It probably would have take guys with guns and battleships to do much good.

I advise kids to join the military from 18-24 and go to college afterwards.


Re: #17: It took guns and battleships to nudge me to go to college, no question about that. High school class of '66 and in excellent health. Either gun fodder in Viet Nam or college. I made the choice for college. Instant deferment from the draft. The "decision" was one of the best i ever made.


I wonder if the issue is one of approach. College Summit is very effective at both identifying the types of students who could benefit from counseling and providing the right type of resources to help them get into college. Specifically they focus on a mid-tier niche of students who are capable of going to college, but don't because they lack the resources to get their applications together.


Isn't being able to take the advise of a counselor and see if it works for you or not apart of being an adult that has to at some point figure out their way in the world? They can be given advise as a student but as a person approaching and experiencing their college years those advise might not be what works for them. Not everything that is traditional works for some people. Hence, that why their is a Bill Gates and a multitude of others that never saw eye to eye with the "System".
One should be given the advice since it is there for them and is offered by the school curriculum but ultimately it does not have to be followed. Unconventional wisdom still prove to be successful in this country. On the other hand, African American students doesn't even get a fraction of the counseling and preparation for college as the Whites does. Then again, this is the "System" that exist.