Learning First Alliance

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Do High College Costs Depress Student Achievement in K12?

vonzastrowc's picture

New research suggests that perceptions of college affordability can influence student motivation and academic performance as early as seventh grade. Rising costs can become yet another deadweight on poor students' performance.

The "Education Optimists" blog offers the following account of this research, which appeared in the April issue of Psychological Science:

Researchers provided low-income Chicago 7th-graders in two randomly selected classrooms with one of two kinds of information: Classroom A received information about need-based financial aid opportunities, indicating that college was a possibility for them while Classroom B was provided information about the enormous costs associated with a college education, indicating that college was not a viable option (specifically they were told that the average college tuition costs $31,160 to $126,792).

The researchers then assessed students' motivation levels and mentality towards school using questionnaires about goals, grades, and time usage.

The students in Classroom A expected to do better in school and planned to put more effort into studying and homework, compared to the students in Classroom B, who did not view college as a realistic possibility.

In a sensitivity analysis the researchers repeated the study with Detroit classrooms, and changed the second condition from info about college costs to no info at all. Results again indicated that students provided financial aid information had a more open mindset toward their future.

If reliable, the study has important implications:

  • Students should receive information about college financial aid much earlier than high school. (Get that information to those control groups in Chicago and Detroit right away!);
  • Efforts to control college costs and improve financial aid offerings may have important academic effects far upstream in K-12.

Of course, better financial aid information is not a miracle cure for low academic achievement among poor students. The study's researchers found that "the positive effects...were not as great for students with lower grade point averages."

Still, it seems both wise and humane to make college a feasible goal for low-income students. Say Yes to Education, a program that offers poor inner-city students comprehensive supports including college scholarships, has dramatically narrowed the college graduation gap in cities where it operates.

So the prospect of affordable college is important for all sorts of reasons. Let's just hope it doesn't become a false promise.

The way the experiment is

The way the experiment is described, it's not so much about the cost of college; it's about whether the students feel like society expects them to go to college.

If students believe financial aid is being provided to students like them, they see that society believes that they should attend college and will be successful there.

If students believe that their family can't afford college, then they believe that society doesn't expect students from their financial background to go to college.

It may seem like a minor distinction, but it allows a connection to extensive existing knowledge about how effort and outcome are tied to expectations.

You may well be right, though

You may well be right, though it is difficult to tell without referring to the actual study as published in Psychological Science. (Unfortunately, I don't subscribe. Will any of our kind readers spring for a subscription?)

As long as we're speculating....  Does the expectation as you understand it include an expectation that those students would succeed in college?  In other words, would financial aid build confidence?

In any event, it's interesting that low-income students could see costs/financial aid as a marker of society's expectations--or lack of expectations--for their success. If that's the case, government and university policies matter. Waning commitment to need-based (as opposed to merit-based) aid--ARRA's Pell Grant increases notwithstanding--might be sending very unfortunate messages about our expectations. Reason enough, perhaps for further study.

I am amazed by this

I am amazed by this information and find it startling. I teach high school in an economically challenged district. I have feared that kids and their parents find the process overwhelming, but this confirms my fears. I am going to attend to these fears in my classroom!

Thank you, Katherine! I'd

Thank you, Katherine! I'd love to hear about what you do--and the effect your strategies to address the problem might have.