Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

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.