Ideas for Effective, Equitable Early Awareness Strategies

July 19, 2017

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

When nine founding organizations joined together to form NCAN more than 20 years ago, most college access services were targeted at high school juniors and seniors. Over the next two decades, those services have expanded dramatically up and down the educational pipeline to include success programs for college students and early awareness programs for middle grade students. Over this time, states and cities also looked to target low-income students. They used four primary interventions: children's savings accounts, place-based promise programs, early commitment scholarships, and informational campaigns. In a new brief, College Access and Success Strategies That Promote Early Awareness in Middle-Level Grades, NCAN explores the most effective way to structure these policies so that they equitably serve low-income students. 

After conducting a literature review and exploring examples of these policy options, NCAN concluded that there is not enough evidence to recommend one strategy over the other, but that there is evidence that each one is a promising practice to increase college access for low-income students. Similar to many other practices targeting our students, it is likely a combination of strategies is most effective. 

Below is an overview of the four strategies and related recommendations explored in the brief. 

Children’s Savings Accounts: Children’s savings accounts, or CSAs, are an avenue for low-income families to save for college. The best design to serve low-income families includes a user-friendly application process with a low minimum deposit and possible partnership matching funds. Matching funds, or incentive funds that do not require a match, are particularly important for the lowest-income families who may not be able provide any savings of their own. The paper highlights successful examples operating at different levels: Promise Indiana is a statewide program, the Takoma Housing Authority is a city-wide program, and NCAN member Inversant is a non-profit organization that provides CSAs. 

Place-based Promise Programs: Promise programs, as defined for this paper, are college scholarships that are awarded based on the location of the student. This is a narrower focus than the broadly used term “promise” that now also covers free tuition programs. Place-based promise scholarships have already demonstrated their ability to provide early awareness by shifting the college-going culture of a community by guaranteeing that all students will have access to funding for higher education. In addition to having a place-based component, NCAN recommends that these programs target low-income and first-generation students, do not include a high merit requirement, and provide funding in addition to available dollars from the federal or state governments. NCAN member Denver Scholarship Foundation, along with The Kalamazoo Promise and The El Dorado Promise, are featured in the brief. 

Early Commitment Scholarships: Early commitment scholarships are state-funded scholarships for low-income middle school students. The goal of these programs is help ensure that low-income students know they have a dedicated amount of funds for college and to help them stay on the course of college-readiness. The first such program emerged in Indiana, before others developed in Oklahoma and Washington. For other states looking to establish an early commitment scholarship, NCAN recommends focusing on eligibility for families making 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, developing a straightforward enrollment process with a robust outreach campaign, limiting the merit aspect of the program by setting the GPA requirement at 2.0, and keeping the additional requirements manageable to avoid creating unnecessary hoops for students. 

Informational Campaigns: Informational campaigns can be public service campaigns or other similar outreach targeted at middle-grade students and their families to illustrate the importance of continuing education beyond high school and helping those families create a plan to be ready for higher education. These campaigns are less expensive than the other three programs discussed, but also work well in conjunction with any of them. NCAN recommends that the campaigns are targeted to reach low-income and first-generation families, remain low-cost, and are designed to complement other early awareness programs. 

NCAN is thankful for the generous support of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in our early awareness work. In addition to this brief and the literature review, NCAN also produced a Resource Toolkit for Early Awareness in the Middle Grades and an e-learning module that’s available to all advisors and free to NCAN members, “Early Awareness: Middle School.”

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