College access programs help high school students prepare academically for higher education and complete the college entry process. College access programs are designed to serve students who are from families with low incomes, identify as a racial or ethnic minority, have parents with limited or no college experience, may have learning and attention issues, or live and attend schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Programs usually help students regardless of performance backgrounds1, 2. Implementing college access programs may involve whole school reforms or establishing supplementary student services. Program components can include college application assistance, standardized test preparation, financial aid counseling and application assistance, social enrichment, college visits and campus activities, academic tutoring and enrichment, mentoring, parental involvement, and scholarships. Programs that support college access can be funded by federal, state, local, and non-profit funds3, 4.
Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)
Increased college enrollment
Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes
Increased college completion
Evidence of Effectiveness
There is strong evidence that college access programs increase college enrollment1, 4, 5, 6. Research suggests that effective programs begin in ninth grade with college awareness and college readiness components5, and guide eleventh and twelfth grade students through the college application and financial aid processes2. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm characteristics of the most effective programs.
Providing college application guidance, financial information, and application fee waivers can increase college applications and enrollments at selective universities7. Several program components can increase college enrollment, including financial aid counseling, college visits, academic one-on-one tutoring, standardized test preparation, and planning tools for high school completion and college applications3. College access programs can increase college enrollment for participating students irrespective of gender, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, or special education status1. College access programs that include opportunities to shadow college students during a campus visit can increase persistence in higher education3.
Experts suggest in addition to tuition coverage, funding is needed to reduce the cost of books, rent, and other living expenses to increase college completion rates. Comprehensive efforts that address financial, informational, behavioral, and academic barriers and continue to support students through the transition to college and with financing and workloads in college may be needed to increase college persistence and completion rates6, 8. One example of a comprehensive college access program that partners with colleges and provides students with academic support and college life skills, the Early College High School program, has been shown to increase college enrollment and college completion9.
The availability of college application and admissions information varies dramatically for students from different income backgrounds and by racial or ethnic status. White students from families with high incomes have the most information and resources to support college applications. Many students of color from low income backgrounds, especially first-generation college students, depend on high schools to provide information and support; however, schools often have limited resources to fill that information and financial gap. College access programs can reduce these disparities in information and support for the college application process and college enrollment1, 10, and can increase financial aid receipt for students from disadvantaged backgrounds6.
College access programs that help students apply for and receive scholarships and financial aid can reduce student debt burdens. Students and families of color disproportionately rely on large loans to attend college because these families have been systematically denied opportunities to build the wealth that could pay for higher education. Experts suggest structural change and public investment in higher education is needed to manage student debt levels, increase access to higher education, address unequal outcomes for degree completion, job opportunities, and wages, and reduce the racial wealth divide. Efforts to prevent, reduce, and forgive student loan debts can contribute to reducing the racial wealth divide11, 12.
Experts suggest college access programs disseminate college and financial information beginning in ninth grade, offer individual assistance, and advise teachers of upcoming milestones. Successful programs often partner with local colleges and high school alumni attending them, arrange or assist with campus visits, and offer separate financial workshops for parents and students2, 3. Research also suggests a need for more college access programs that assist students with learning disabilities, especially those with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds13. Experts suggest college access programs serving Latino/a students, especially in rural and underserved areas, aim to provide quality academic support, simplify the financial aid process, reduce the cost of applications, and develop support networks that promote a culture of high achievement with college attendance expectations10. Overall, the effectiveness of college access programs can vary based on the quality and quantity of support available3.
Impact on Disparities
The Federal TRIO Programs assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds beginning in middle school to postsecondary education. There are 8 federally supported TRIO programs, including Talent Search, that improve college access and provide student services and outreach for individuals from low income backgrounds, with disabilities, or first-generation college students14. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is another federal program to increase college readiness, attendance, and success among students from families with low incomes. GEAR UP provides 6- or 7-year grants to states and partner organizations to provide college access services at middle and high schools in neighborhoods with high poverty rates15.
Several states fund college access programs, as in California16 and Florida17. Universities can also operate college access programs; for example, the University of California’s Early Academic Outreach Program18 and the University of Colorado’s Pre-Collegiate Development Program19.
Many non-profits also administer college access programs; for example, Advancement Via Individual Determination20, the “I Have a Dream” program21, Engaging Latino Communities for Education22, College Possible23, Bottom Line24, and Sponsor-a-Scholar25.
The Collegiate Leaders in Increasing MoBility (CLIMB) initiative is a non-profit partnership between researchers and colleges across the country working to increase access to postsecondary education, promote economic opportunity, and support income upward mobility for students from low income backgrounds. CLIMB has several policy initiatives that include efforts to increase college access generally and specifically to increase the number of students from low income backgrounds that attend selective colleges and universities26.
IES WWC-Tierney 2009 - Tierney WG, Bailey T, Constantine J, Finkelstein N, Hurd NF. Helping students navigate the path to college: What high schools can do. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), What Works Clearinghouse (WWC); 2009.
US ED-TRIO - US Department of Education (US ED). Federal TRIO program.
NACAC-Directory - National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), College Greenlight, National College Access Network. NACAC Directory of college access & success programs.
Sponsor-a-Scholar - Philadelphia Futures. Sponsor-a-Scholar program.
College Possible - College Possible. Together, we thrive: Let’s remove the barriers to earning a college degree.
Bottom Line - Bottom Line. Bottom Line helps first-generation students from low-income backgrounds get into college, graduate, and go far in life.
US ED-Financial aid - US Department of Education (US ED). Financial aid toolkit.
AVID - Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.
MCAN-College access guide - Michigan College Access Network (MCAN). Charting the course: A community’s guide for increasing educational attainment through the lens of collective impact. Second Edition.
* Journal subscription may be required for access.
1 Bowman 2018* - Bowman NA, Kim S, Ingleby L, Ford DC, Sibaouih C. Improving college access at low-income high schools? The impact of GEAR UP Iowa on postsecondary enrollment and persistence. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 2018;40(3):399-419.
2 IES WWC-Tierney 2009 - Tierney WG, Bailey T, Constantine J, Finkelstein N, Hurd NF. Helping students navigate the path to college: What high schools can do. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), What Works Clearinghouse (WWC); 2009.
3 Kim 2021a* - Kim S, Bowman NA, Ingleby L, Ford DC, Sibaouih C. Promoting educational success: Which GEAR UP services lead to postsecondary enrollment and persistence? Educational Policy. 2021;35(1):101-130.
4 US ED-Harvill 2012 - Harvill EL, Maynard RA, Nguyen HTH, Robertson-Kraft C, Tognatta N. Effects of college access programs on college readiness and enrollment: A meta-analysis. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences (IES), US Department of Education (US ED); 2012.
5 Le 2016* - Le VN, Mariano LT, Faxon-Mills S. Can college outreach programs improve college readiness? The case of the College Bound, St. Louis program. Research in Higher Education. 2016;57(3):261-287.
6 Glennie 2015* - Glennie EJ, Dalton BW, Knapp LG. The influence of precollege access programs on postsecondary enrollment and persistence. Educational Policy. 2015;29(7):963-983.
7 IES WWC-College opportunities 2014 - US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). WWC review of the report: Expanding college opportunities for high-achieving, low income students. 2014.
8 NBER-Page 2015 - Page LC, Scott-Clayton J. Improving college access in the United States: Barriers and policy responses. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2015: Working Paper 21781.
9 Blueprints - Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV). Blueprints for healthy youth development.
10 Hurtado 2020 - Hurtado S, Ramos HV, Perez E, Lopez-Salgado X. Latinx student assets, college readiness, and access: Are we making progress? Education Sciences. 2020;10(4):100.
11 TCF-Mishory 2019 - Mishory J, Huelsman M, Kahn S. Bridging progressive policy debates: How student debt and the racial wealth gap reinforce each other. New York: The Century Foundation (TCF); 2019.
12 Brookings-Perry 2021 - Perry AM, Barr A. Michigan wants to increase residents' college enrollment, but student debt is holding them back. The Avenue Blog. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; 2021.
13 King 2009* - King KA. A review of programs that promote higher education access for underrepresented students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. 2009;2(1):1-15.
14 US ED-TRIO - US Department of Education (US ED). Federal TRIO program.
15 US ED-GEAR UP - US Department of Education (US ED). Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).
16 CAL-SOAP - California Student Aid Commission. California Student Opportunity and Access Program (CAL-SOAP).
17 FCAN - Florida College Access Network (FCAN). When students succeed, Florida thrives.
18 UC-Berkeley-EAOP - University of California-Berkeley. Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP).
19 CU Boulder-PCDP - University of Colorado-Boulder. Precollegiate Development Program (PCDP).
20 AVID - Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID). AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.
21 I Have A Dream - I Have A Dream Foundation. Educate, empower, achieve: We provide individualized social, emotional, and academic support to young people ('Dreamers') from under-resourced communities from kindergarten all the way through college, along with guaranteed tuition support.
22 ENLACE - Excelencia in Education. ENgaging LAtino Communities for Education (ENLACE).
23 College Possible - College Possible. Together, we thrive: Let’s remove the barriers to earning a college degree.
24 Bottom Line - Bottom Line. Bottom Line helps first-generation students from low-income backgrounds get into college, graduate, and go far in life.
25 Sponsor-a-Scholar - Philadelphia Futures. Sponsor-a-Scholar program.
26 Opportunity Insights-CLIMB - Opportunity Insights. The Collegiate Leaders in Increasing MoBility (CLIMB) initiative is a partnership between researchers and colleges to improve upward mobility in America.
Related What Works for Health Strategies
To see citations and implementation resources for this strategy, visit:
To see all strategies: