By Alan Burns
Researchers at the Social Science Research Center are working with the Woodward Hines Education Foundation to evaluate their Get2College Pilot School Program, which seeks to increase the number of students getting to college in Mississippi.
Many high school students have thought about attending college after graduation, but many may not know how to get there. A lack of college planning advice at home and in school and financial barriers ranging from college application fees to large tuition gaps are obstacles that often prevent students from enrolling in a community college, four-year college or university. Researchers at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center (SSRC) are evaluating the Get2College Pilot School Program that is working to create a college-going culture in eight high schools throughout the state.
Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF) is committed to helping more Mississippians obtain postsecondary credentials, college certifications, and degrees that lead to meaningful employment. WHEF focuses mainly on a three-pronged strategy: access and entry to college, persistence and completion of college, and connection to family-sustaining employment. Get2College, a program of WHEF, provides the boots on the ground work for the access strategy.
The Get2College program serves students, their families and educators across Mississippi. With three centers located in Jackson, Ocean Springs, and Southaven, Get2College staff work with students and their families to help plan and pay for college. While Get2College staff work with all families, they are committed to helping students who have historically been underrepresented in college, low income, first generation, and students of color.
Get2College also provides training on college access issues. This includes support for high school counselors across the state, FAFSA training for high school, community college, and university partners; training for educators on how to leverage data to move the needle on college access; training for teachers for the new College and Career Readiness course for high schools; and college admission recruiter training on issues of college access and financial aid.
Another key program of Get2College is their pilot school program where they work on site in eight high schools across Mississippi to create a college-going culture. Since January 2017, researchers at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) have been working with Get2College on evaluating their Pilot School Program.
In order to increase the numbers of students going to, persisting and completing college, the Pilot School Program is designed to use nationally identified best practices and benchmarks from the National College Access Network (NCAN). Get2College works with administrators, counselors, teachers, students, and parents through on-site support, workshops, special events, and individual counseling. Some of the activities include application days, campus tours, ACT workshops, college applications days, and FAFSA completion events.
“In a way, the Pilot School Program grew out of the work that we do in our centers. We were able to see that students coming to our centers were going to college at a very high rate using data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC),” said Get2College Program Director Ann Hendrick.
The eight pilot high schools include Lake Cormorant in the DeSoto County School District, Pelahatchie Attendance Center in the Rankin County School District, Bruce High School in the Calhoun County School District, Taylorsville High School in the Smith County School District, St. Martin High School in the Jackson County School District, O’Bannon High School and Riverside High School in the Western Line School District, and Moss Point Career and Technical Center in the Moss Point School District.
The participating schools were selected to showcase the difference in small versus large schools, with junior and senior classes in the eight schools ranging from 43 at the smallest to over 350 at the largest. The differences in size provide insight on how the program can impact schools of varying sizes and demographics.
Ben Walker and Izzy Pellegrine, both researchers at the SSRC, are operating as Co-Principal Investigators for Get2College’s pilot program evaluation. Walker and Pellegrine feel that this evaluation is unique in that it presents them a chance to use an emergent research design that couples together distinct social scientific approaches.
“One of the most interesting pieces about this evaluation is the actual design,” said Pellegrine. We’re using a mixed-methods component with a matched pairs qualitative sub-component, which essentially means we’re using both qualitative and quantitative methods at the pilot schools, as well as match schools in the state. This design will provide us with information that we wouldn’t normally get from a program evaluation.”
The evaluation can be most effectively described by breaking it into two areas: the quantitative component and the qualitative component, with the qualitative having a matched pairs qualitative sub-component. According to Walker, the team is trying to tackle two main ideas from a quantitative perspective.
“Ultimately, the quantitative part of the evaluation is looking at how many students are getting into college, and of the various services that are offered, which are having the most benefit in terms of getting them there,” Walker explained.
In the qualitative section, the evaluation is geared towards the process of intervention on the ground. Pellegrine and Walker explained this section has two distinct parts, one that has been completed and one that they are getting ready to launch.
“Our qualitative section is on the ground looking at what’s really happening in these schools,” Pellegrine stated. “We want to know what these programs look like as they exist currently. We want to center on student voices in how they relate to these services and what they’d like to see from the program in the future.”
For the comparative qualitative match component, the team matched the pilot schools with 8 control schools that are not receiving the program. The schools that were chosen are demographically similar to the pilot schools, which allows them the chance to have a more effective reference group for comparison.
“Our qualitative match component is working at the school level with the demographically matched schools. This comparative component consists of counselor interviews and focus groups with students that look at their processes and resources,” Pellegrine said.
Another key issue for the program evaluation is the establishment or expansion of the college-going culture in Mississippi schools. The evaluation team hopes that the focus groups, in both pilot and match schools, will give them insight into the current college-going culture.
“In these focus groups, we plan to find out what the college-going culture is like. It’s hard to find this out on a standard survey instrument such as our entrance and exit surveys, but the focus groups should yield richer information,” said Walker.
“That is why the student’s perspective is so important,” explained Pellegrine. “All of the adults involved, such as the counselors, administrators, and parents, are all stakeholders in creating that culture, but the students on the ground can actually relay the result of Get2College’s efforts to create and expand that culture.”
Regarding the complex methodology, both Pellegrine and Walker expressed their anticipation for the results and how this evaluation can be proof of the methodology for testing other programs in the future.
Early results in the program have helped reinforce both national standards and observations that the WHEF and Get2College were currently using regarding Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion.
“So far, we’ve found that student’s FAFSA completion is the strongest factor in predicting their transition to college,” said Walker.
Hendrick reciprocated these results. “We have always used national data, but with this evaluation, the SSRC has given us the ability to use our own data to promote the college-going culture and that’s very valuable to us,” she said.
For Get2College, it is important to take what the team learns from the Pilot School Program evaluation and apply it to our work around the state, explained WHEF Director of Communications and Impact Courtney Lange. “Just as important as informing our own work, we plan to share what we’ve learned with schools and educators throughout Mississippi so that they can replicate the promising practices identified through the Pilot School Program.”
“Often, people will commission research, it is read, and that is where it ends. But this project is on a continuum: the work, the research, and then putting it into practice on a broader scale,” Lange continued.
For the future of Get2College and work with students, Hendrick noted that the final results from the SSRC’s evaluation would play a crucial role.
“At Get2College, our goal is to work within a cycle of Do-Learn-Test-Share, where we implement a project, participate in an ongoing assessment of the project’s effectiveness, and experiment with new approaches that will ultimately move the needle on college access in Mississippi,” Hendrick said. “As we begin thinking about our pilot school exit strategy, we plan to leverage the data we receive from the evaluation to create a college readiness and enrollment dashboard for high school leaders in each pilot school and to develop a data-driven plan to compliment it.”
This dashboard would include specific goals, timelines, and success metrics to help high school counselors and administrators to both create and sustain a college-going culture in Mississippi high schools.
Hendrick also noted that a longer-term approach to evaluation could result in sharing college readiness information more widely to high school administrators and eventually include community colleges, universities, and communities to work towards a state-wide, data-driven approach to college attainment goals.