At the end of May, the College Board released a study about an inexpensive intervention that held the promise of increasing the number of high-achieving, low-income high school students who attended more selective colleges, where research suggests they might be more likely to succeed. The researchers found that the intervention did not make a significant difference in student outcomes. The project was based on the highly publicized 2013 study by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner showing that a $6-per-student investment in sending personalized college-application information and application-fee waivers helped solve this “undermatch problem”—significantly increasing the number of high-achieving, low-income students who enrolled in selective colleges.

The College Board deserves a lot of credit for scaling and testing a promising intervention, but the new findings remind us that sometimes a nudge is not enough. Our own experience at MDRC running a more intensive program, called College Match, offers some lessons on why that might be.

The College Match Program placed “near-peer” advisers—trained staff who were recent college graduates—in low-income high schools serving predominantly students of color in New York City and Chicago. The advisers delivered crucial information, supported students as they navigated the college and financial aid application process, and helped students and their parents make informed decisions about college selection and enrollment. Over a four-year period, the program served approximately 1,200 students.

What did we learn?

It’s not about just the super-high-achieving types. The Hoxby and Turner study targeted high school students who scored in the 90th percentile on the ACT or SAT and who maintained an A-minus grade-point average. But there’s a large group of moderate-achieving students who can also benefit from making better matches—for instance, choosing a nonselective four-year university over a local two-year community college.

Students often need more than just information to make the right match. College Match advisers found that offering a variety of services and counseling—to students and their families—made a difference:

  • Individualized advising: helping students identify best-fit colleges based on their individual interests, academic abilities, and other personal and family considerations.
  • Application support: assisting students, who are often the first in their families to attend college, in navigating the complex college application process, advising them on how to develop competitive applications and essays, procure fee waivers, and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Parental engagement: helping parents understand the options available to their students and the financial and personal implications of those choices—because many parents may be uneasy about their children going away to school.
  • Decision making and planning ahead: helping students choose among multiple acceptances and financial aid awards, keeping them on target to enroll once they’ve accepted, and preparing them for the transition to college and campus life.

While we haven’t rigorously tested the College Match model, other research on “intrusive” advising has been promising, suggesting there’s value in offering low-income students the same kinds of support that their more advantaged peers receive, a conclusion also shared by the College Board study authors. We’ve published a how-to guide with practical advice from the College Match program that could be adopted by high schools around the country.

At MDRC, we’re big believers in the power of better messaging and other low-cost behavioral nudges, which have been proven to move the needle in many education and social services programs.

But sometimes a more intensive—and personal—touch is required to help young people make the most of opportunities that are available to them.

D. Crystal Byndloss, who directed the College Match Program, is a Senior Associate in MDRC’s K-12 Education Policy Area. She is also the MDRC Director for Outreach, Diversity, and Inclusion.