Could helping high-school students complete postsecondary application forms boost participation rates among those least likely to pursue higher education? A recently-completed pilot study in British Columbia and Ontario aims to find out.
Currently, the onus of applying to a university or college program rests largely with students. “Imagine an alternative setup where all Grade 12 [students] are leaving high school with an offer of acceptance to a program they helped choose … and a financial aid package,” said Philip Oreopoulos, associate economics professor at the University of Toronto. “Then the road to postsecondary becomes much more real. And the option becomes, ‘Should I show up in September or not’.”
Dr. Oreopoulos designed the Life After High School program modeled on a similar U.S. research project he was involved with in 2008. The Canadian study was implemented by the Social Research and Demonstration Corp., a non-profit research organization, as part of the Grade 12 curriculum at select high schools in Ontario and British Columbia with low postsecondary transition rates. All students at the chosen schools took part so no one was singled out, Dr. Oreopoulos said.
The program consisted of three workshops held during school hours. The first one, held in the fall, was designed to help participants select a postsecondary program. Students completed and submitted applications during a second workshop held in November or December. Application fees, usually incurred by students, were covered by the program. The third workshop was held in the spring to help students apply for financial aid.
In British Columbia, 50 high schools were included . Of those, 24 were randomly selected to administer the program; the remainder were assigned to a control group that didn’t implement the program. In Ontario, 86 schools participated, of which 43 were selected to deliver the program. The B.C. study, which ran in the 2010-11 school year, was funded by the federal government through the Canada Students Loans Program. The Ontario study ran in the 2011-2012 school year and was funded by the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Some 10,000 B.C. students and 18,000 Ontario students were involved, half of whom took part.
The results aren’t yet known. But the proportion of students who submitted applications at the schools where the program was implemented increased in both provinces by 35 percentage points to about 75 percent, said Reuben Ford, research director at the Social Research and Demonstration Corp. “It proved to be very difficult to get absolutely every student into the workshops,” Dr. Ford said. Of those who did attend, some faced technical difficulties. “And it was voluntary so they might not have wanted to apply,” he said.
The last workshop was the most poorly attended, with only 50 percent of students participating compared to 90 percent in the first workshop and 75 percent in the second. This could be because students were busy preparing for final exams, he explained, or perhaps they didn’t feel they would qualify for financial aid.
Dr. Oreopoulos said he’d like to reduce the time students spend in workshops, possibly getting it down to one class. “We’re trying to think of ways of making it as simple as possible and as least disruptive as possible,” he said. It helps that in Canada students aren’t required to write SAT college admission tests and that most programs don’t require a supplementary application such as personal essay questions.
Although it’s too soon to draw any conclusions, Dr. Oreopoulos said he’s optimistic about the program largely because of the U.S. study results. For that project Dr. Oreopoulos worked with researchers at Harvard University, Stanford University and the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research in partnership with accounting firm H&R Block. The firm’s tax professionals helped a group of randomly selected low-income families in Ohio and North Carolina complete student financial aid forms as part of the tax filing process. The findings showed that students whose families received assistance completing the forms were 29 percent more likely to enrol in a college or university program compared to those whose families hadn’t received help. They were also more likely to receive financial aid.
“The thinking was that if we could have that large an effect for people just helping them with their financial aid package, why not go the whole nine yards and help them with everything,” Dr. Oreopoulos said. One of the benefits of the Life After High School program is that it’s easy to implement and inexpensive compared to other methods traditionally used to improve access, such as lowering tuition fees or increasing student aid. The cost factor is likely the reason why the project attracted government interest, he said.