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Social Capital and the College Enrollment Process: How Can a School Program Make a Difference?

by Jennifer L. Stephan — 2013

Background: College attendance has become a crucial determinant of life chances in U.S. society. Besides college costs and academic preparation, college-related cultural and social capital may help explain socioeconomic differences in whether and where students attend college. While high school counselors are seen as potential agents of social capital, the standard counseling model, developed to serve middle-class students, may not translate effectively to schools serving disadvantaged students. The college coach program, introduced in twelve 12 non-selective Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in the fall of 2004, provides an alternative model. In contrast to the standard high school counseling model, college coaches take a “community organizer” role in assisting the college enrollment process. Statistical difference-in-differences analysis suggests that coaches may have improved the kinds of colleges that students attended, particularly for less advantaged students.

Purpose: This qualitative study describes how the coach program works and analyzes key aspects that may explain its positive relationship with college enrollment outcomes.

Participants: Interviews were conducted between the spring of 2006 and spring of 2007 with nine 9 current and former college coaches, two 2 postsecondary specialists (to whom the coaches report), and thirty 30 high school seniors in two coach schools, which, like other non-selective CPS high schools, serve students who are predominantly African American or Latino and low-income.

Research Design: Responses to semi-structured interviews with coaches and students were coded for recurring themes and according to interview questions. A model of how coaches create social capital emerged from iterations between coding interviews and studying previous research on the creation of social capital.

Conclusions: The results suggest that coaches use new advising strategies (different from typical school counseling practices) to increase students’ college-related social capital and subsequently increase the number of students completing college actions, which may explain improved enrollment outcomes. This research highlights previously tacit assumptions about how counseling should work and details new advising procedures that may benefit disadvantaged students in the college enrollment process. More generally, this research discusses specific social mechanisms through which policy or institutions may create social capital to improve educational attainment.

Nearly all high school seniors (95%) plan to attend college (Berkner & Chavez, 1997), but the college enrollment process makes it difficult for some students to find dependable college pathways. Navigating the enrollment process, which includes searching for and applying to colleges and financial aid, requires knowledge and resources often taken for granted by middle-class families, but which are in fact learned and not known by all students. Disadvantaged students whose families are often unfamiliar with the college enrollment process could potentially draw on social capital, knowledge, and resources accessed through social relationships. However, disadvantaged students often have less social capital related to college than their middle-class peers (Bloom, 2007; González, Stoner, & Jovel, 2003; McDonough, 1997). While previous research on social capital details its distribution or impacts, almost none considers whether and how policy or institutions may intentionally foster its creation (Coburn & Russell, 2008). This research investigates a new model of high school counseling that appears to build social capital to improve college enrollment outcomes. This research shows specific advising strategies that may help in the high school to college transition for low-SES students and, more generally, suggests how institutions may intentionally build social capital.

In addition to college costs and academic preparation, differences in college-related cultural and social capital help explain differences by socioeconomic status (SES) in whether and where students attend college (González, et al., 2003; Lareau & Weininger, 2008; Lee & Ekstrom, 1987; McDonough, 1997; Perna, 2000; Plank & Jordan, 2001). Cultural capital consists of behaviors, attitudes, knowledge, and preferences that parents pass to their children and which can be invested for social or economic profits (Bourdieu, 2001; Swartz, 1997). For students with limited access to college-related cultural capital, social capital is a potentially important resource. While high school counselors can provide college-related social capital (González et al., 2003; Stanton-Salazar, 2001), many disadvantaged students are underserved by counselors (Bloom, 2007; Lee & Ekstrom, 1987; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Previous research blames high student-to-counselor ratios (McDonough, 1997; Perna, et al., 2008; Stanton-Salazar, 2001), but the ways counselors deliver help has remained largely unquestioned. The standard model of counseling, in which counselors respond to students’ requests for help and serve students one-on-one, exacerbates limitations in counselors’ time, ignores important resources that could improve outcomes, and limits the types of students reached. The standard counseling model, which was developed to help middle-class students with college, may not translate effectively to schools serving low-SES students, schools that often face limited budgets and serve students with greater needs for help in the college enrollment process.

The college coach program, introduced in some Chicago public high schools in the fall of 2004, provides an alternative model of counseling. Unlike counselors, coaches take a “community organizer” role in assisting the college enrollment process. Coaches proactively recruit students into the process, use existing peer networks and create new ones to disseminate information and engage students, and serve students in groups. Statistical difference-in-differences analysis suggests that the onset of the college coach program improved the kinds of colleges that students attended and particularly helped less advantaged students (Stephan, 2010). While such statistical results support replication of this program, qualitative research is necessary to discover what are the crucial elements of the program that need to be replicated.

The present study uses interviews with college coaches and students to describe how the coach program works and to analyze key aspects that may explain its positive impact. The results suggest that coaches use new advising strategies (different from typical school counseling practices) to increase students’ college-related social capital and subsequently increase the number of students completing college actions, which may improve enrollment outcomes. This research contributes to work on programs aimed at improving college enrollment by highlighting previously tacit assumptions about how counseling should work and by detailing new advising procedures. More generally, this research contributes to work on social capital by discussing specific social mechanisms through which policy or institutions may create social capital to improve educational attainment.

The remainder of this section discusses social and cultural capital barriers for low-SES students, describes the social capital framework used in this study, and presents background on the college coach program. After describing the study’s methods, results are presented that suggest coaches create college-related social capital in a three-stage process. Coaches use innovative advising strategies to (1) change social relations in schools around the college enrollment process, which (2) created or enhanced college-related resources that (3) led to an increase in the number of students who completed college actions.


There are several gaps in the college enrollment process in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). While 80% of graduating seniors in CPS plan to attend college in the fall, just 62% of students with general college plans name a specific college they plan to attend by the end of senior year. Among students with specific college plans, just 63% enroll in any college four months later (Stephan, 2010). Moreover, many students in CPS who could qualify for a four-year college attend two-year colleges (Roderick, Nagaoka, Coca, & Moeller, 2008), which have low degree completion rates. Gaps in the enrollment process reflect not only financial and academic barriers to enrollment, but also college-related cultural and social capital barriers. Low-SES or minority students often have limited information about college cost (Grodsky & Jones, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2004), college requirements (Kirst & Venezia, 2004), admissions exams (Walpole, et al., 2005), and differences in institutional types and degree (Stephan, Goble, & Rosenbaum, 2008; Stephan & Rosenbaum, 2009). While nearly all seniors state plans to attend college (Berkner & Chavez, 1997), low-SES students may be less confident about their plans (Bloom, 2007; Rosenbaum, Hallberg, Stephan, Goble, & Naffziger, 2009), often assume all colleges are the same (McDonough, 1997; Rosenbaum, et al., 2009), and tend to view achievement as an immutable fact (McDonough, 1997; Walpole, et al., 2005).

While college knowledge and parental involvement in the enrollment process may be taken for granted by middle-class observers, they are forms of cultural capital readily available to students whose parents have attended college but not necessarily otherwise (Bloom, 2007; Lareau & Weininger, 2008; McDonough, 1997; Naffziger & Rosenbaum, 2009). The parents of low-SES students are often supportive of educational aspirations in general (González, et al., 2003; Lareau & Weininger, 2008; Stanton-Salazar, 2001), but parents without college experience often cannot provide tacit college-knowledge or specific help in the enrollment process (González, et al., 2003; Lareau & Weininger, 2008; McDonough, 1997). Middle-class parents more often provide information about colleges and admissions requirements, help with applications (Bloom, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2004; Lareau & Weininger, 2008; McDonough, 1997), monitor completion of tasks in the application process (Lareau & Weininger, 2008; McDonough, 1997), and take primary responsibility for planning college financing (Bloom, 2007; McDonough, 1997). Such cultural capital increases the likelihood of considering and being admitted to four-year or more selective colleges.

Similar resources could be accessed through social ties. College information, assistance, contacts, emotional support, and social norms are social capital resources potentially available in students’ networks that can influence whether or where students enroll in college (González, et al., 2003; Pérez & McDonough, 2008; Perna, 2000; Plank & Jordan, 2001). While everyone has social capital (Lareau & Horvat, 1999), the usefulness of students’ social capital for the college enrollment process varies by race/ethnicity and SES (Pérez & McDonough, 2008; Perna, 2000; Plank & Jordan, 2001; Tierney & Venegas, 2006). Latino/a students, for example, often rely heavily on family and friend networks for college information, networks that have high levels of trust but limited resources based on personal experiences (Pérez & McDonough, 2008; Person & Rosenbaum, 2006). Research finds that contacts attending college may encourage Latino students to enroll in college but contribute to problematic college choices (Person & Rosenbaum, 2006). Moreover, lower levels of social capital help to explain why lower SES students enroll in college or in a four-year college at lower rates (Plank & Jordan, 2001).


High school counselors, the school staff most directly charged with helping students form postsecondary plans, are potentially an important source of help in the college enrollment process. Indeed, counselors at elite private high schools, like counselors in private practice, enhance students’ college applications, e.g., with test coaching and essay advice (McDonough, 1994; Persell & Cookson, 1985), structure and monitor timelines, give emotional support (McDonough, 1994, 1997), give individualized college recommendations (McDonough, 1994), and create and maintain college contacts that can influence admission (McDonough, 1997; Persell & Cookson, 1985; Stevens, 2007). However, typical counselors, those at non-elite public high schools, rarely provide such detailed help, and low-SES students, who may need more help, often receive less help than middle-class students (Lee & Ekstrom, 1987; Perna, et al., 2008).

Typical counselors face high caseloads that limit the amount of time they can spend with students. Student to counselor ratios average 284:1 at public high schools nationally, are higher at urban high schools or those serving predominantly minority students (Parsad, Alexander, Farris, & Hudson, 2003), and in some of the largest cities exceed 700:1 (McDonough, 1994). Moreover, in contrast to elite counselors who have a single focus on college (McDonough, 1994, 1997), typical counselors have many job duties unrelated to college such as testing, discipline, and personal counseling (Kirst & Venezia, 2004; McDonough, 1994, 1997; Moles, 1991; Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985)1 Low SES students’ difficulty accessing counselors has largely been blamed on high student-to-counselor ratios (McDonough, 1997; Perna, et al., 2008; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Focusing just on high student-to-counselor ratios, however, misses part of the problem and potentially part of the solution.

The ways that counselors deliver help has remained largely unquestioned. Elite and typical counselors use a similar approach: both deliver help in one-on-one sessions and at the request of students. However, while this counseling model may work fine in elite schools with low student-to-counselor ratios, it exacerbates problems when student-to-counselor ratios and student needs are both high. Counselors who struggle with large caseloads have little time to meet with students individually and repeated individual meetings are rarely permitted. Limited contact with counselors may be particularly problematic for low-SES students, who often require more detailed assistance or for whom trust, which is built over time, may be a precursor to help (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Moreover, a model that requires student initiative to receive help can fail to reach disadvantaged students, who can be uncomfortable seeking out or receiving help or may not know when they need help (Bloom, 2007; Naffziger & Rosenbaum, 2009; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). A counselor model that serves students individually and at their request is unproblematic if students routinely seek help and enough counselors exist to provide it. However, for disadvantaged students, these conditions are often not met. Although the traditional counseling model is taken for granted, it may be outdated in an age when society encourages all students to attend college.

While previous research focuses on high student-to-counselor ratios as the barrier to helping low-SES students, this study shows other dimensions along which counseling may vary and considers how varying such dimensions could improve the college enrollment process for disadvantaged students.


According to Bourdieu, social capital consists of: (1) the social relations governing access to resources, and (2) the resources themselves (Bourdieu, 2001; Lin, 1999; Portes, 1998).2 Based on Bourdieu’s definition, college-related social capital is defined here as resources available through social relations that students can invest to improve their college enrollment outcomes. In this definition, social capital is the combination of social relations and the resources available through them, referred to here as “social capital resources.”

Literature on social capital typically addresses one of two areas: the organization of social relations or the resources embedded within networks (Lin, 1999).


While the structure of social relations, or social networks, have been characterized along many dimensions, including time span, size, density, hierarchy, closure, and structural holes (Adler, 2002; Burt, 2000; Coburn & Russell, 2008; Granovetter, 1995; Levin & Cross, 2004; Lin, 1999), two dimensions are particularly relevant for the current study.

(1) Strength of Ties.

Tie strength, characterized on a continuum from weak to strong, refers to the frequency of interaction and the closeness between two individuals (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Granovetter, 1995; Levin & Cross, 2004). Weak ties are most helpful for providing novel, public, or codified information (Constant, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1996; Granovetter, 1995; Levin & Cross, 2004; Uzzi & Lancaster, 2003). In the case of tacit or complex information or risky activities, however, strong ties facilitate access to resources (Levin & Cross, 2004; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Uzzi, 1997). Trust characterizes strong ties (Levin & Cross, 2004; Uzzi, 1997), and trusting relationships can increase the likelihood that a source will provide more useful information or that a seeker will listen and take action on information (Andrews & Delahay, 2000; Kahne & Bailey, 1999; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Tsai & Ghoshal, 1998). Strong ties develop, by definition, through repeated interactions over time, but can also result when a third party transfers the trust and expectations from an existing social relation to a new one (Uzzi, 1997).

(2) Access to Expertise.

Social networks have also been characterized according to individuals’ locations relative to a strategic location (e.g., an expert), and research suggests that close proximity to a strategic location may provide individuals better access to information or help (Burt, 2000; Coburn & Russell, 2008; Penuel, Riel, Krause, & Frank, 2009). In a study of two schools with similar resources to implement a new literacy reform, for example, Penuel and colleagues (2009) find that the central location of experts in teachers’ social networks at one school compared to the isolated location in the other helped to explain differences in teachers’ commitment to the reform. Importantly, school policies and practices can influence access to expertise (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Penuel et al., 2009).

Counselors generally serve students individually and at students’ requests. These practices may hamper access to counselor expertise for some students, particularly low-SES students who may be uncomfortable approaching counselors or who may need more help in the enrollment process.


Can a high school program increase students’ college-related social capital? If so, how? While Bourdieu emphasizes the ways the distribution of social capital reinforces social stratification, Stanton-Salazar (2001) suggests that social capital may also counteract stratification. Yet, Stanton-Salazar stops short of considering whether and how social capital may be intentionally created. Indeed, little is known about whether and how policy may affect social capital, and even less is known in the context of schools (Coburn & Russell, 2008). Potentially, organizations and policy could foster social capital by changing the ways that individuals interact (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Spillane, Gomez, & Mesler, 2009). In a study of teachers and mathematics reform, Coburn & Russell (2008) show that the introduction of math coaches in schools affected the structure of teachers’ social networks, their access to expertise, and the content of their interactions related to a reform curriculum. The effects varied by how districts defined the math coach role. The authors suggest that policy can change social capital within a school, though not deterministically, and that work roles are one policy lever. Organizational routines are another policy lever. For example, creating forums for people to interact may also create social capital (Coburn & Russell, 2008; Spillane, et al., 2009). In a qualitative study of low-income high schools, Tierney and Venegas (2006) show that organizing peer counseling groups around the college enrollment process created social capital for the peer counselors and helped them to develop a college-going identity. However, the authors did not analyze whether the organizational change similarly helped students who were not peer counselors.

As discussed in detail below, this study suggests that the coach program introduced a new work role and changed organizational routines in ways that increased students’ access to expertise and strengthened their ties with school staff.



In 2004-2005, CPS introduced the college coach program to a diverse group of 12 non-selective high schools. One coach was assigned per school and charged with improving students’ college enrollment by providing help in the enrollment process (not academic or monetary assistance). The district encouraged coaches to focus on increasing the number of students attending four-year colleges because of low graduation rates at two-year colleges.3 To improve college enrollment, the district directs coaches’ (and counselors’) attention to the completion of key college actions: multiple college applications, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),4 and scholarship applications—actions that are particularly important for four-year college enrollment.

Similar to counselors in this district, coaches are charged with improving college enrollment, focusing on college actions, and serving all students, not a select group. In addition, counselors and coaches function within traditional urban schools with all the difficulties they confront. However, coaches and counselors differ in their job tasks and professional backgrounds. These differences may help to explain why coaches’ strategies for delivering help differ from those of counselors.

Unlike most counselors, coaches organize formal college programming (e.g., college fairs, workshops, tours). Coaches also provide ongoing assistance in a college room, which is a space stocked with college-related literature and computers that students visit during their lunch hour or before or after school to work on the enrollment process. The college room typically also serves as the coaches’ office. This arrangement encourages many spontaneous interactions between the coach and students and students and their peers around college. A further difference is that coaches, during the study period, reported to the district, rather than to principals, as counselors did.5

Coaches and counselors also differ in their professional backgrounds. Public high school counselors are school professionals. They must meet state educational and certification requirements, many were former teachers, and they often belong to professional organizations (e.g., ASCA, NACAC). Many counselors identify themselves as professional psychologists (McDonough, Ventresca, & Outcalt, 2000), and their actions are guided by a psychological services model, which deals with clients individually and at the initiative of the client. In contrast, coaches were hired largely because of their experience outside of schools working with disadvantaged youth. The coach program was developed and directed by a previous youth worker with extensive community organizing experience, who spent much of his career working on educational issues from outside of the school system. Similarly, most coaches had previously worked in community-based youth organizations or youth-development programs outside of schools. This difference in background may help to explain why coaches approach counseling differently from typical school counselors.

A difference-in-differences analysis suggests that coaches improved the kinds of colleges that students attended, partly by increasing the number of students who completed key actions, especially college and financial aid applications. Unlike some educational reforms in which the most advantaged students benefit more than others (Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, & Bradley, 2005; Cook, 1975; Rockman, 1995), coaches appear to benefit the most disadvantaged students, who are typically underserved by counselors: lower-SES, lower achieving, and Latino students (Stephan, 2010).

This study investigates how the coach program, which redefines the counselor role, works to impact college enrollment. Analysis suggests that changing the way help is delivered changed social interactions around the enrollment process, which may have then increased students’ college-related social capital resources and enabled students to complete key college actions, which disadvantaged students often do not complete (see Figure 1 discussed below).

After describing the study’s methods in the following section, results are presented in three parts: (1) coaches’ strategies for delivering help, (2) implications for social relations in the school, and (3) implications for college-related social capital resources and college actions.



As part of a larger research project on the high school-to-college transition, the author was a member of a research team that interviewed college coaches and students in two coach schools in CPS. In Spring 2006, interviews were conducted with 9 current or former college coaches, from 8 of the 12 original coach schools, and 2 postsecondary specialists, to whom the coaches report and who also work with counselors. The district determined which coaches were interviewed by supplying the names of most but not all coaches, which may mean that the most successful coaches were interviewed. A member of the research team conducted interviews individually with coaches, former coaches, or specialists in a private location, typically an office, at the interviewee’s current place of employment, either a school or the district office. The semi-structured interviews lasted approximately one hour and asked about the following topics (with sample questions in parentheses): background (e.g., can you tell me a little bit about your previous work experience and what led you here?); role (e.g., can you describe your role and responsibilities as coach?); function/activities (e.g., what are the most powerful activities and techniques for engaging students?); interactions with students (e.g., where and when do you talk or meet with students?); information resources (e.g., how do you get information about colleges?); and school climate (e.g., how would you describe the school climate with respect to preparation and planning for college?). The complete interview protocol is available from the author upon request.

The coaches and postsecondary specialists are primarily female (82%) and African-American or Latino (90%). In most cases, the race/ethnicity of the coach matched the race/ethnicity of the majority of students in the coach’s school. The average age of coaches was 30. All coaches have bachelor’s degrees and 4 coaches also have master’s degrees. All names are pseudonyms. The coach sample includes 2 males, but female pseudonyms are used to protect their identity.

In-depth interviews were also conducted with seniors in two coach schools in the fall and spring of 2006-2007.6 One school serves primarily African-American students and the other many Latino students. The majority of students at both schools are low-income. Within each selected school, a random sample of 15 seniors, stratified on English class track, was drawn to complete in-depth interviews in the fall. In the 2 high schools, 30 students were interviewed in the fall and 26 of these students were interviewed again in the spring. Interviews took place in a private location in the school during the student’s lunch hour (the interviewer brought the student lunch). One member of the research team was assigned per student, and interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes. Semi-structured interviews asked about the following topics (with sample questions in parentheses): post-high school plans in general (e.g., what do you plan to do next year after graduation?); college applications and choice (e.g., which colleges did you apply to?); college-related software and online search tools (e.g., did you use internet sites to help you choose colleges?); college types (e.g., did you consider community college?); application process (e.g., what was the easiest part of doing college applications?); college decisions (e.g., what difference does it make which college you go to?);  college help (e.g., did anyone help you in filling out applications? Who?); college costs and financial aid (e.g., what role has your family played in helping you with financial aid?); college resources at the high school (e.g., did you ever meet individually with a guidance counselor to talk about college during senior year?); high school background (e.g., about how many hours per week did you spend on homework first semester?); and the future (e.g., how likely do you think it is that you will start college in the fall?). The complete student interview protocol is available from the author upon request. Students were offered a $10 gift certificate for their participation. Similar to coach interviews, all student interviews were recorded and later transcribed.


Coach interviews were coded deductively and inductively using NVivo software. Contrasting prior research on counselors with initial observations of coaches suggested that the ways coaches deliver help differed significantly from counselors. Therefore, a code was created to capture coaches’ advising strategies, defined as the procedures coaches used to deliver college help to students. In re-reading the text associated with advising strategies, four sub-codes emerged: outreach, build trust, enlist students, and work in groups. In addition, because prior literature suggested a social capital framework for analyzing counseling help and coaches’ own words often referred to social networks, interviews were coded for the social capital resources coaches appear to deliver. Upon re-reading the text associated with the “resources” code, several themes emerged, which were then coded across interviews: social support, detailed help with college tasks, and the monitoring of college actions.

Because of the length of student interviews, coding began by extracting the sections of interviews related to coaches.7 Several codes correspond directly to interview questions: frequency of coach contact and students’ responses to the questions: “who were you most comfortable going to for college information?” and “who was most helpful in the process?” While coding these interviews deductively, two additional themes emerged: students’ self-described “laziness” (i.e., lack of motivation) as a barrier to educational attainment, and coach’s monitoring of steps in the enrollment process. Appendix A shows excerpts of raw responses from one coach and one student interview to illustrate how data were coded. Appendix B lists the codes used in the analysis and illustrates the meaning of codes with quotes from students and coaches, as appropriate.

The coach model of creating social capital, depicted in Figure 1 and described in the following sections, emerged from iterations between coding interviews and studying previous research on the creation of social capital.

Research meetings and meetings with district officials provided the opportunity to receive feedback on and refine the codes and the model. As a member of a research team, I attended weekly meetings and had informal discussions with colleagues who also had participated in interviewing coaches and students and had read many of the same interview transcripts. In these discussions, I received valuable feedback on the qualitative codes and hypothesized model as they developed. Particularly helpful in vetting the codes were discussions with a colleague who was conducting ethnographic observations in two coach schools over two and a half years. When disagreements arose, I re-read interviews, and we had further discussions to understand the sources of difference. Few inconsistencies were identified and all were resolved through discussion. In addition, I had multiple opportunities to present findings (with colleagues) to district officials and others conducting research in the school district. The description of coaches’ strategies and their creation of social-capital resources resonated with participants in these meetings, and I did not receive any contradictory feedback.


Figure 1 depicts a hypothesized model, emerging from analysis, of how introducing the coach role affected students’ college actions. The model postulates that coaches’ innovative (relative to traditional counselors) advising strategies: (1) changed the social relations around the college enrollment process, which (2) created or enhanced college-related resources that (3) led to an increase in the number of students who completed college actions. The following sections examine coaches’ advising strategies and suggest how they change social relations and social capital resources within schools.


Coaches’ Advising Strategies

While public high school counselors often act according to a psychological services model, coaches behave more like community organizers. Both traditional counselors and community organizers work to improve the lives of individuals, but they differ in their approach. Counselors serve clients one-on-one and at their request. In contrast, community organizers focus on groups, actively recruit people into action, and identify and build community resources as mechanisms to improve the lives of individuals. Community organizers reach out to potential members by advertising, canvassing neighborhoods, using social networks, and appealing to self-interest (Bobo, Kendall, & Max, 2001; Haggstrom, 2001; Rubin & Rubin, 2001), and they identify and build community resources by creating new social networks, teaching new skills, and developing leaders (Gittell & Vidal, 1998; Rothman, 2001; Rubin & Rubin, 2001). Analyses of interviews find that coaches have 4 key strategies for delivering help, many of which reflect a community organizer approach and differ from the traditional counseling model.

(1) Coaches Reach Out to Students. In contrast to counselors who respond to student requests for help but similar to community organizers, coaches aggressively market their services. Indeed, most coaches referred to advertising, marketing, or selling college activities, and many described how they elicit student participation through incentives (e.g., food, games, coordinating with teachers to give extra credit). Yet, coaches went well beyond enticing students to come in. Coaches are, according to Coach Barbara, “out there beating the pavement.” All coaches described proactively reaching out to engage students in the enrollment process, but their tactics for doing so varied. Some coaches reported visiting classrooms, others called out specific students in assemblies, summoned students to the college room, waited outside classrooms or in the hallways for students, sent personalized notes to students, ate with students in the lunchroom, or approached students in detention (a neglected captive audience) or summer school. Sometimes, coaches sought out students who qualified for specific opportunities (e.g., based on their GPA), and at other times, coaches approached students without a specific agenda. Describing how she reaches out to students in the lunchroom, Coach Judith said, “adults were scared to go in” the cafeteria, but “I’d just eat my lunch with kids, and they’d be like ‘she’s coming in the cafeteria?’ Yeahhhh. I’ll go home and take Excedrin later, but I’m just sitting there asking, ‘what do you want? What are you looking for?’” Even though it gives her a headache, Judith goes into a place that other school staff will not in order to reach students.

Describing how she engages students in college actions, Coach Dana said, “Why it’s important to have a postsecondary coach is that you need to actually go down physically and grab [a student’s] hand.” According to Dana, proactively engaging students is a defining job duty.

Coaches’ proactive approach may encourage students to get involved. Coach Oriana, for example, describes students’ reactions to her proactive behavior: “I will literally just go up to a kid, and … a lot of times, I’m like ‘I don’t know who you are, I need to see you.’ And about one hundred percent of the time, the kid will always come to my office.” According to Oriana, when directly approached, students would come into the college room. In interviews, students report that it works. A student says, “[the coach] came in my class once … and asked if I could come down during my lunch period [to the college room], and I was like okay.” The student goes on to describe visiting the college room and receiving help with a college application. According to this student, the coach’s proactive behavior resulted in her completing a college application, which likely would not have happened otherwise. Unlike counselors, coaches do not rely on students to initiate contact around a college application process that students poorly understand and are unsure is pertinent to them. Instead, coaches proactively engage students, a strategy that may encourage new kinds of students to get involved in postsecondary planning.

(2) Coaches Build Trusting Relationships with Students. For middle-class students who may use counselors primarily for explicit information, forming a trusting relationship with a counselor may be unnecessary. However, for disadvantaged students, attending college can involve high social and personal risks and uncertain payoffs (Bloom, 2007; Freeman, 1997), and a trusting relationship with staff can make low-SES students more receptive to help (Kahne & Bailey, 1999; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Eight of nine coaches described establishing trust with students as important.8 Coach Dana, for example, said trust is important because “Once they trust you, then you can actually begin to help them because they’ll actually receive what you try to give them.” Similarly, Coach Carla said,

You really need to develop a rapport with the student, that’s really the most important thing … and once you do that … you’re much more able to assist that student because then you have a better idea about what it is that they want to do … [and] students begin to feel more comfortable with you if they see that you’re making the effort.

Dana and Carla suggest that in the context of a trusting relationship coaches can better assist students and students will respond more to their help, an assertion also supported by research more generally (Andrews & Delahay, 2000; Kahne & Bailey, 1999; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Tsai & Ghoshal, 1998).

Coaches had various tactics to build trusting relationships with students. First, 8 of 9 coaches discussed demonstrating an interest in students, for example by attending their after-school events, incorporating students’ ideas into program development, or listening closely to students, as ways to build trust. Coach Susan explains her approach:

I had to build a relationship with students independently of just finding college for them … and sometimes the way of doing that isn’t strictly through the role of which you serve, you know. So I did a lot of things … I go to all of their events, like there’s a fashion show, I’m there. If there’s a concert, I’m there. You know, I really support them … I try to go to their sporting events.

Although attending school events was not a job duty, Susan chose to attend in order to build relationships with students.

Second, 6 of 9 coaches described reducing their social distance to students, for example through their speech, relating their own college experiences, distinguishing themselves from other school staff in interactions with students, or making themselves readily accessible (e.g., distributing their personal cell phone or email addresses, meeting with students on evenings or weekends). Coach Carla said she tried to build rapport with students. When asked to discuss how she builds rapport, Carla said:

[To] high school students, adults seem to be like, the enemy, ’cause it’s like, you know, anything that a high school student does, adults just bark at them … Even if I see a student doing something wrong, I’m not the type to be barking down their throat and all that. I’m the type that might pull them to the side and say, “Now, why did you do that?”

Carla distinguishes herself from other school staff by moderating her reactions to students’ misbehavior. This may make students more comfortable to approach her in the future.


Third, 6 of 9 coaches discussed building trust by being dependable and honest. Coach Judith explains, “Some of the things that I was doing were actually happening. [The students] were like, ‘ok, we can trust this person.’” Coach Dana demonstrates her dependability to students by showing them that her information is accurate: “[CollegeBoard.com] can pretty much edify anything I tell [the students] so they know that I’m not just saying hearsay like their best friend is.” Judith and Dana attempted to build trusting relationships by demonstrating their credibility to students.

Almost all coaches report that establishing trust with students is an important precursor to help, and they each had multiple strategies for building trust.

(3) Coaches Enlist Students In Delivering Help. Like community organizers, coaches use existing and build new social networks to accomplish their goals. Seven of nine coaches discussed students’ social networks as an asset for delivering information about college to students and recruiting students to the college room or to activities. Coach Portia explains, “the kids, they would be pretty much the mouthpiece to help get postsecondary out, because if the kids know that something good is going on, they’ll tell their friends, and their friends will all come and want to be involved.” Portia uses teenagers’ tendency for socializing to spread college information and recruit students to activities.

Coach Judith formalized the use of students’ networks by creating the “ambassador” program. She explained how the idea came to her:

I have to get a way for [the students] to hear me…so I had a group of students in my office one

day and I said ‘you know what, I need to make you ambassadors for me. You need to be my ambassadors. You need to help me get this information out.


Judith saw students as a means to reach other students. She went on to explain how the ambassadors grew into a student club organized around the college enrollment process. Three additional coaches adopted the “ambassador” program in their schools.9 According to these coaches, in all schools, ambassadors’ duties included getting college information out to students, recruiting students into the college room or engaging them in college activities, and providing instrumental help with the college enrollment process. For example, Coach Oriana explains that at her school: “[the ambassadors are] helping kids go through the websites, showing them certain materials, grab an application, tell them, ‘oh remember you need to get your transcript or ACT and letter of recommendation in.’” According to Oriana, ambassadors provide instrumental help in the enrollment process. In addition, they serve, according to Coach Portia, as “a peer motivational.”

To coaches, students are important assets for distributing college information and engaging other students in the enrollment process. Most coaches used students’ existing peer networks informally to deliver college information and some also built peer networks, like the ambassador program, for that purpose.

(4) Coaches Serve Students In Groups. Community organizers focus on the group level and use groups as a mechanism to change individuals’ lives. While counselors typically meet with students individually, coaches, like community organizers, often work in groups. According to Coach Ramona:

Counselors have their small space and their office cubicle, and they see students individually one at a time, so if a counselor is busy … then the student just has to wait outside. Whereas I am in a bigger room, almost like a lab, so that I can see multiple students at one time.

As Ramona explains, coaches differ from counselors in the use of groups, a difference facilitated by having a college room. The district required all schools that received a coach to set up a college room. The college room provides space, college-related literature, and computers with Internet access for students to work on the enrollment process. In most cases, the college room also serves as the coach’s office. Students visit the college room, often in groups with one or two friends (Naffziger, 2010), before and after school and during lunch. The college room serves an instrumental need by providing Internet access, a critical tool in the enrollment process and which just 30% of low-income students have at home (Venegas, 2007). The college room also allows coaches to help students in groups. Carla (college coach) explains,

When everyone’s supposed to do financial aid … [there are many students] coming in “What about this? What about that? What about this?” We’ll do a group here. Especially because I was like, ‘I’m getting swamped,’ I’m like, ‘everybody, let’s just go out front, let’s sit at the table,’ and so then I did a group thing with them.

Carla turned what could have been a series of individual meetings about financial aid into one group meeting. Other coaches similarly describe, and ethnographic research confirms (Naffziger, 2010), that conversations with one student can spill over into advising many other students in the room. When the college room is full of students engaged in related activities, this provides an efficient way to answer everyone’s questions.

Coaches also ran formal group-based college activities. While some of coaches’ specific activities varied by school, depending on other school resources, there was consistency in the group format. All coaches reported conducting group-based workshops and summer programs, taking groups of students on college tours, and hosting college representatives or organizing college fairs. In addition, 4 coaches reported visiting classrooms to give presentations, and 4 coaches hosted large group presentations (e.g., Financial Aid Night).10

In sum, previous research makes tacit assumptions about what form counseling must take. It assumes that the problem with counseling is high student-to-counselor ratios, because it implicitly assumes one-to-one interactions. This analysis, however, shows other dimensions along which counseling can vary. In contrast to the standard counseling model, coaches proactively reached out to students, built trusting relationships with them, enlisted students in the delivery of help, and served students in groups. While high student-to-counselor ratios are a constraint, they are particularly so if counseling takes the form of individual advising in response to student initiated requests. Although 44% of all students in CPS report receiving help with their postsecondary plans from a counselor,11 87% of interviewed students reported having contact with their coach regarding the college enrollment process. One cannot know to what extent each of the coaches’ strategies may help to explain this difference. However, it suggests that something different may be happening in coach schools.

Implications Of Coaches’ Strategies For Social Relations

Social capital, defined as resources accessed through social relations, is created by changing social relations (Coleman, 1988; Flap, 2004; Spillane, et al., 2009). As illustrated in Figure 2, analysis suggests that coaches’ strategies change social interactions around the college enrollment process.


Creating Social Networks. By enlisting students in the delivery of help and using groups, coaches made the enrollment process a social process. Coaches intentionally created social networks around college by linking students together in group activities (formally, for example in workshops or in the ambassador program, and informally in the college room or through the use of students existing peer networks). This contrasts sharply with the standard model of counseling, in which counselors serve students individually.

Building Strong Ties. The college enrollment process takes place over an extended period of time and involves many deadlines, and complex, often unstated, and highly variable procedures (Stephan & Rosenbaum, 2009). Strong ties facilitate the communication of tacit and complex information (Levin & Cross, 2004; Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Uzzi, 1997).


Coaches’ strategies may create strong ties with students by increasing the frequency of their interaction with students, one dimension of tie strength. While the majority of seniors in CPS met with their counselor four or fewer times per year,12 60% of students in the study’s coach schools reported visiting the college room at least two times per week, and some reported visiting nearly every day for several weeks.13 By focusing only on college, using groups, and enlisting peers, coaches can serve students more efficiently. Angela, a postsecondary specialist who works with both coaches and counselors, explained how coaches spend their time differently than counselors:  

The counselors aren’t running workshops to talk about financial aid. … A lot of them don’t have the time to stay on top of the information to be well informed. … The coaches can create a workshop. They can sit and hold the hand of a student and the parent, walk them through the process. Applications for college? A college counselor isn’t going to sit and hold their hand and do that in a day-to-day fashion. But a coach can. A college counselor is not always going to be able to get on a college bus and go to a university on a college tour and walk a student through the process. A coach can and do[es] do that.

Angela identified two ways in which coaches invest their time differently from coaches. First, they can learn more about college procedures, an assertion repeated by one coach and a few students, and second, coaches can provide ongoing help with each sequential step in the enrollment process, a theme shown repeatedly both in coach and student interviews and one explored in detail in the next section. Coaches can meet with students frequently and therefore work with students on many tasks in an ongoing process, which is rarely possible for typical counselors. Indeed, this is what private college counselors provide, as a very expensive service to individual students (McDonough, 1994).

Tie strength also depends on closeness. Given coaches’ reports about their enormous efforts to build trusting relationships with students, one would expect to find that they have close relationships with students. Indeed, 2 coaches described their relationships with students in familial terms (i.e., “I consider [the students] a big family. They all call me mommy”; “you become like that other parent to the student”), and one coach (Ramona), when asked how her role differs from counselors said, “I don’t want to judge the relationships that they have with their students, but sometimes I think that the amount of contact I have with [the students] … the connections [coaches] have with them may be stronger.” According to Ramona, because she interacts frequently with students, she can establish stronger relationships with students.

While students did not discuss closeness specifically, it may be reflected in their responses to the question, “Who do you feel most comfortable going to for college information?” Of the 23 students who were asked the question in the spring, 12 named their coach. Just 4 named their counselor, and these 4 students attended a school that is recognized as having an atypically strong counseling department. Perhaps because of coaches’ efforts at building relationships and their frequent interactions with students, many students reported feeling comfortable seeking help from college coaches.

Increasing Access to Expertise. Coaches may increase access to expertise, particularly for students not well served by typical counselors. The standard counseling model relies on students to request help and consequently may serve the most motivated students. Coaches recognized that students have different levels of motivation with respect to postsecondary planning. Most coaches described two kinds of students, the self-starters (“kids who just, on their own, going to come in and see you”) and the reticent (“kids who just may need a little more push”) (Coach Oriana). Not all coaches elaborated on how these two groups might differ. However, Coach Keisha suggested that students who come in on their own were those with some familiarity with college (due to parents or other relatives having attended).

Coaches’ advising strategies aimed, in part, to increase access to expertise for more reticent students or those typically not well served by counselors. Six of nine coaches explained that they reached out, built trust, and enlisted other students in delivering help, at least in part to benefit harder-to-reach students. Coach Dana explained, “those bottom 100 students are the ones that I really do call and then go get.” Coach Ramona directed her efforts on trust building selectively: “I formulated relationships with … some of the ones that were more reluctant. Within that I talked to them about [college].” Enlisting peers may also have attracted students who would not otherwise have come to the college room or college activities. Coach Portia explained, “You know, they’ll come to the event if it’s the [student] ambassadors [hosting] but it doesn’t sound cool to say ‘Miss Atley is hosting.’” Using students as messengers or co-hosts may lend credibility to coaches’ messages. Indeed for one student, the participation of friends provoked his own: “My friends go to [the coach] so they tell me, oh you know, you should come with us. I would go with my friends and that’s when I was like more open to, whatever, talk to [the coach] about colleges.” This student says that he was willing to visit and talk to the coach because his friends have done so. According to Dana, Ramona, and Portia, reaching out, building trusting relationships, and enlisting peers, were strategies meant, in part, to reach students who may not be reached by typical counselors. The next section suggests how these changes in social relations create social capital resources.


Changing the ways people interact can create or enhance social capital resources. Interviews suggested a model (Figure 2) in which (1) creating social networks around the enrollment process created social support for college and potentially learning spillovers; and (2) strengthening ties with students, particularly frequent interactions, increased students’ access to detailed help with college tasks and monitoring of college actions. The following paragraphs provide evidence to support these hypothesized relationships.

(1) Resources Related to Creating Social Networks around College

Social Support. Peers and friends play a critical role in the lives of adolescents. Moreover, serving youth in groups can provide program staff the opportunity to create social support or positive social norms as staff direct messages at the group level or messages to individual youth are witnessed by others (Hirsch, 2005; Kahne & Bailey, 1999). Seven of nine coaches described how they create opportunities for peers to support each other in the enrollment process. For example, Coach Judith explained how students reacted when she began posting college acceptances on a wall in the school: “The kids who weren’t applying at first, they’d say ‘Well, I want my name on the board,” and I’d say, ‘Well, apply.’ … We’d start talking, you know, college is possible.”14 According to Judith, turning the college enrollment process into a social process motivates other students to get involved. Another coach said that students might find groups comforting. Asked how she helps students who did not have specific postsecondary plans by late in senior year, Coach Ramona replied, “I am having a couple different workshops for those students also so they feel that they are not alone and kind of embarrassed.” According to Ramona, seeing other students in a similar situation provides comfort: Students are doing something new, but they do not feel that they are alone. In all types of schools, friends may support each other in the college enrollment process, but here coaches appear to create the conditions for social support by creating social networks around the college enrollment process.

In the traditional model, counselors working one-on-one with students do not have the opportunity to create peer support. For middle-class students who have plenty of support for college, this may not matter. However, for disadvantaged students, some of whom do not know anyone outside of school staff who attended college, knowing that other students like them are planning college may provide important support. Indeed, social support is particularly important in the case of “taking bold new steps” (Hirsch, 2005, p. 79).

Learning Spillovers.Two coaches discuss another potential social resource: other people’s learning. Portia (college coach) explains a typical interaction in the college room: “I would be talking to one person and have somebody else on a computer, you know I see them listening, and they’re probably going through the same thing, so I start to talk a little bit louder.” Portia anticipated the needs of other students based on the conversation she was having with one. Even students who may not know enough to formulate a question or those who may feel uncomfortable asking still can receive an answer. This point receives less support in coach interviews (only two coaches discussed spillovers). However, ethnographic research in two additional schools also finds learning spillovers (Naffziger, 2010).

In sum, when counselors serve students individually they give up the opportunity to increase social support or create learning spillovers, social capital resources that result from relationships in social networks.

(2) Resources Related to Strong Ties

Frequent interactions, one dimension of strong ties, allow coaches to offer college resources not typically available from counselors.

Detailed Help With Completing College Tasks. Coaches’ help with financial aid provides a clear example of how coaches provide detailed help with individual tasks in the enrollment process. To receive federal financial aid, as well as most state and institutional aid, students must complete the FAFSA form. Its complexity discourages students from completing it (Bloom, 2007; Burdman, 2005; Dynarski & Scott-Clayton, 2006), and some students who likely qualify for aid do not know about the FAFSA or believe they are ineligible for aid (Stephan, et al., 2008). While counselors often provide little or only superficial assistance with financial aid (Burdman, 2005; McDonough & Calderone, 2006), coaches offered multiple ways for students and families to receive help. Some coaches hosted financial aid nights (in some schools counselors did so), and all coaches offered repeated workshops and individual assistance in the college room, in some cases in the evenings or on the weekends to accommodate parents’ schedules. Coaches helped students and families obtain FAFSA PIN numbers (required to submit an electronic application) and actually complete the form. In addition, some coaches tracked students’ FAFSA completion (reported by 5 of 9 coaches), checked students forms (reported by 2 coaches), reviewed award letters with students (reported by 3 coaches), and all were available during the summer for financial aid counseling. Three coaches reported that their college contacts allowed them to find additional aid for students, including undocumented students who have few sources. Nearly all students who reported contact with the coach (23 of 26) described receiving help with financial aid.

In addition to detailed and repeated help with tasks related to the FAFSA, all coaches, at the direction of the district, also helped with college applications and scholarships. One student explained, “Anytime I needed help with the [college] applications, I would bring in an application in there [the college room] almost every day, and then my auntie would come in there sometimes, and we’d sit there and do my financial aid and all that.” This student reported receiving ongoing help with both college applications and financial aid. In addition to general help with applications, 8 of 9 coaches taught workshops on essay writing or edited students’ college essays, and 4 of 9 coaches contacted college representatives to follow-up on applications for students who may have been on the margin of acceptance. Coaches also helped with scholarships, for example by announcing scholarship deadlines, showing students how to search for scholarships online, and assisting with applications. Counselors’ limited contact with students means that they can rarely provide ongoing and detailed help, but coaches can because they see students so frequently.

Coaches’ focus on tasks may provide necessary functional knowledge. For some students, this help was critical. Referring to her coaches’ help with the FAFSA, one student says: “She sat down with me and my mom and we did the whole thing. So we’re really thankful for her cause I don’t think we would have finished it if it wasn’t for her.” Quantitative analysis shows that students at coach schools were more likely to complete the FAFSA and college applications, important predictors of improved enrollment outcomes (Stephan, 2010). Of the 18 students who were asked in the spring who the most helpful person was in their enrollment process, 13 students named the coach (alone or in conjunction with another person). This attests to the helpfulness of coaches’ detailed approach.

Monitoring the Completion of College Tasks. Many students (15 of 30) discussed “laziness” as an actual or potential barrier to educational attainment (e.g., a barrier to academic achievement, enrolling in college, or completing a college degree). For example, when asked early in senior year what type of help he thinks he will need in planning college, one student replied, “someone to push me because I could get lazy.” Students rarely elaborated on the causes of “laziness.”15    

Like middle-class parents who closely oversee their children’s educational careers (Lareau, 2003; Lareau & Weininger, 2008), coaches responded to students’ potential lack of motivation by monitoring completion of steps in the enrollment process. Seven of nine coaches tracked the completion of college actions or the formation of specific college plans, some formally, for example by written records of which students had completed actions, and others informally. Coach Keisha says, “I would always make sure to be out in the hallway at the change of class because you might see someone and say, ‘oh, I meant to tell you this’ and ‘did you do that?’” For parents who are unfamiliar with the enrollment process, monitoring could be difficult, but coaches invest time in monitoring actions.   

Most students (15 of the 23 with spring interviews who said they had contact with the coach) described how the coach monitored the completion of college actions. For example, one student said, “[The coach] was pretty hectic about us going to go see her about financial aid. Like our … teachers would give us like notes she wrote with exclamation marks and stuff. You pretty much had to go.” This student describes feeling compelled to talk to the coach about financial aid after receiving notes from her. Other students, referring to their coaches said: “She kept asking me if I was doing my applications”; “[She] is always pushing FAFSA!’”; “She’d make me sit in there and do my applications”; “[She] beat me over the head with it - ‘You need to do your FAFSA PIN number’”; “She forces me to apply [to college]. She always tells me apply, apply, apply, apply.” While these descriptions may at times sound harsh or irritating, no student described this monitoring (or nagging) as anything but helpful. Given the number of students who say they need a push and given that this pushing takes place within the context of a familiar or close relationship (i.e., strong ties), students may experience these admonitions as a form of support, and they likely provided an incentive to complete college actions. After describing the enrollment process as overwhelming, one student explained how his coach helped him get through it: “There were times I didn’t think I was gonna go to [college, the coach kept saying], ‘You gotta come in, you gotta do it. Where you been?’ You know, just staying on me.” Coaches’ monitoring kept this student on track with his college plans.

In sum, coaches appear to have created social capital by using innovative advising strategies that changed the social relations in schools around the college enrollment process and led to new social capital resources. Interviews suggest that by using groups and enlisting students in delivering help, coaches created social networks around the college enrollment process that led to social support and possibly learning spillovers. By using groups, enlisting students in delivering help, and building trust with students, coaches appear to have built strong ties with students. This change in social relations, especially increased frequency of contact, may have helped coaches to provide more detailed college help and monitoring of actions in the enrollment process. Finally, by reaching out to students, building trust with students, and enlisting students in the delivery of help, coaches appear to have increased access to expertise, especially for students who often are underserved by typical counselors.


Interviews with students and coaches suggest a model of how coaches may improve college actions, an important mediator of improved enrollment outcomes. According to the hypothesized model that emerged from analysis, coaches’ innovative advising strategies changed social relations in schools around the enrollment process in ways that increased students’ access to college-related social capital resources. This social capital may have resulted in more students completing college actions. These findings help to explain quantitative results suggesting that coaches increased the number of students completing college applications and the FAFSA and subsequently may have improved college enrollment outcomes, especially for the least advantaged students (Stephan, 2010). Future research can consider testing the hypotheses raised in this paper.

Coaches’ successes do not remove the need for counselors. Most coaches said that counselors made large contributions to students and schools. Counselors address personal and academic issues and undertake administrative duties that coaches do not but that are critical to schools. Counselors have a multitude of other tasks, many of which require one-on-one meetings. Indeed, in the low-income schools studied here, where neighborhood violence and family crises are regular events, college counseling often gets squeezed out, even when it has been planned. Some students did use counselors for college advice and help, especially those who had formed relationships with their counselors over prior years. Such students may benefit from personalized recommendations about colleges. Indeed, the coach model may sacrifice individualized assistance and personalized recommendations, but the evidence is limited. Four of 30 students complained that it was difficult to get the coaches’ attention because the college room was too busy or that the coach did not provide personalized recommendations. Schools could add more guidance counselors. However, the present results suggest that alternative strategies may be more effective than the ones counselors have been taught.

This research has both practical and theoretical implications. First, it details procedures and mechanisms of a program that appears to improve some enrollment outcomes, and this research could potentially inform the design of future programs. While previous research focuses only on high student-to-counselor ratios as problematic, adding more counselors doing the job in the same way may be a costly reform that does not fully address the many continuing needs of disadvantaged students. The way help is delivered in the typical counseling model exacerbates the limited number of counselors and hiring many more may simply be impractical. Moreover, in working individually with students, counselors cannot foster peer support for college, a potentially important resource for students who do not receive specific support at home. This research has identified dimensions, previously not discussed, along which counseling can vary and suggested that changing how counseling is delivered can change its content. The coach program suggests changes that may particularly benefit disadvantaged students.

Second, with respect to research on the high school-college transition, this research identifies some specific forms of social capital that may benefit disadvantaged students in the enrollment process, and which previous literature has not discussed: the opportunity to learn from other students’ questions, ongoing and detailed help with college tasks, and monitoring of college actions. In addition, this research provides further evidence on how schools may create peer social support for many students, extending Tierney and Venegas (2006), which shows how social support may be created for a few students in peer counselor roles.

Third, this paper contributes to research on social capital more broadly. While much research documents links between social capital and outcomes, almost none considers how social capital is created and whether policy can create it. Like Coburn and Russell (2008), this paper shows that policy may have some effects on the creation of social capital by changing a work role, which then changes interactions within schools. This analysis provides additional insight by suggesting how these changes lead to new social capital resources and how these changes impact student outcomes.

The individual counseling model works well given sufficient numbers of counselors, particularly with middle-class students. Private college counselors or those at elite high schools provide expertise, structure, detailed assistance, contacts, and emotional support in the college enrollment process, and they tailor help individually to students (McDonough, 1994). However, high student-to-counselor ratios in low-SES urban schools and the greater needs of low-SES students for college knowledge makes it difficult for counselors using the standard model of counseling to provide detailed help to a large number of students. Coaches, who take a “community organizer” approach to improving college outcomes may be able to provide more detailed help and reach more students.


The author thanks James Rosenbaum, James Spillane, David Figlio, Michelle Naffziger, and Lisbeth Goble for their helpful comments on previous drafts. In addition, the author thanks all the members of the High School Transition Study research staff, the coaches, and the students who generously shared their time in interviews. Support for this work was provided by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences at Northwestern University funded by the Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (R305B040098). Of course, the opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.


1. In 57% of public high schools, counselors spend less than 20% of their time on college counseling (Parsad, et al., 2003).

2. Although Coleman’s work on social capital is cited more frequently in the field of education (Dika & Singh, 2002), this study uses Bourdieu’s definition of social capital because it distinguishes between resources and relationships (Dika & Singh, 2002; Lin, 1999; Portes, 1998). Coleman confounds resources with their accessibility (Dika & Singh, 2002; Lin, 1999; Portes, 1998) leading to a tautology. As Portes (1998) explains: “Defining social capital as equivalent with the resources thus obtained is tantamount to saying that the successful succeed” (p. 5). Bourdieu’s emphasis on the accessibility of resources reflects his conceptualization of social capital as a means of social reproduction in contrast to Coleman’s interest in social capital as norms and positive social control (Dika & Singh, 2002; Field, 2009).

3. The majority of CPS students who attend two-year colleges attend one of the Chicago City Colleges, which average a 10% institutional graduate rate (calculations based on IPEDS).

4. Completion of the FAFSA is required to receive federal and most state and institutional financial aid.

5. The reporting structure changed after the study period because of funding changes.

6. Interviews from other schools were omitted from the current analysis since the main concern here is the coach program.

7. Other parts of the interview asked about other sources of college information. However, because the focus here is on the coach program, these parts of students’ responses were not coded.

8. Counts provide a sense of how prevalent a theme was across coaches. There was no consistent pattern in which coaches did not describe particular themes.

9. Coaches likely learned about the ambassador program though coaches’ monthly meetings.

10. Because interviews asked coaches about their activities in general rather than about specific activities, some coaches may not have discussed all the types of activities that they do.

11. Author’s calculations based on data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).

12. Author’s calculations based on survey data from CCSR’s senior survey in 2005.

13. Fourteen of 23 students who were followed up in the spring and who reported interacting with the coach visited the college room at least 2 times per week compared to just 6 students who visited less frequently. Reponses from other students could not be classified. Most often, these responses were “not sure.” One response was “a lot.”

14. Two other coaches used this same technique of publicly displaying college acceptances or scholarship awards.

15. “Laziness,” or lack of motivation, could reflect students’ not knowing how to complete tasks or not being comfortable doing so. Alternatively, some students may simply prefer immediate benefits (e.g., the fun of being with friends instead of working on college applications or doing homework) to long-term payoffs (e.g., from attaining a college degree). Interviews provide no evidence to support or reject either possibility.


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The following interview excerpts, from one coach and one student, illustrate how codes were assigned to raw text. Codes, in all capital letters, are noted at the end of the corresponding text. For a complete list of codes with a description and examples, see Appendix B. In the following excerpts, italics indicate that a name was changed to protect confidentiality.



Interviewer: What kind of programs were [the ones you created as a college coach]?

Coach Judith: Well one of the programs that I saw at high school, that’s where I worked … High school wasn’t of a college-going nature because it’s very high on athletics, so I had to go from scratch almost and say “Ok, how can I do this?” and try to build it up, you know all of that. So I walked around, talked to some people at the school and I said, “What can I do?” you know because I’m a postsecondary coach. So postsecondary wasn’t the big thing. Yeah they had a lot of kids who went to school but a lot of them were on athletic scholarships and the ones who had very good grades, um, they were not, they were doing fine but they were kind of like on the back-burner so to speak. So I said “Ok I gotta get some programs going on in here.” First of all just to gain their trust (TRUST). So once they started seeing me, I started putting posters up, putting flyers up, come into my office, come see me (OUTREACH). Um, a couple of the students knew me because I’m in the neighborhood, so they started gathering in my office (GROUPS) so I said “Ok I have to get a way for them to hear me and for the other students to hear me, so I had a group of students in my office one day (GROUPS) and I said “You know what, I need to make you ambassadors for me. You need to be my ambassadors. You need to help me get this information out (ENLIST STUDENTS). And so they were so happy and the students that were in my class, or in my office, they had, um, they weren’t your stellar students they were just kind of your mid-tier students who were just kind of looking for information and as luck would have it at the time, the person who was the senior counselor was getting ready to retire. So she really wasn’t even thinking about the kids. So she kind of turned everything over to me, which at first it was a little scary but then it was a way for the kids to listen to me and I started going into the lunchroom and just talking to them and making them feel at ease (OUTREACH). You know, letting them know “You can do this, you just don’t know how to do it. So let me show you ways of how to get this started and everything.” And some of the things that I was doing were actually happening. They were like “Ok we can trust this person.” So it was easy for me then to give them more information (TRUST) and then I had my ambassadors (ENLIST STUDENTS) and the word got out so then everybody wanted to be an ambassador which I was like “fine” but meaning it would be really crowded in here! So we kinda need to put some criteria on it. So I just worked where I had at least 5 ambassadors in each homeroom.


Interviewer: [Did you see advantages or disadvantages of] Selective Four-Year College?

Judith: My students that went to Selective Four-Year College because I knew they could do the work, they just needed to push. They hated writing essays but I stayed on them (MONITORING) and I wanted them to see, um, uh, that you know all your hard work would pay off, but it’s a big college. I would do a trip for them, I would do Selective Four-Year College at Easter to show them a large college and a small college and see how you would fit in (DETAILED HELP WITH COLLEGE TASKS). So we would have, I would have the guy from Selective Four-Year College come up and talk to them and then the students who got accepted, I would have him come back and then just talk to those particular students. So they would have like pizza with him and just find out what they had to do (DETAILED HELP WITH COLLEGE TASKS). Then I would take them down to the school to see if there was anything we need to take care of, what do we need to do (DETAILED HELP WITH COLLEGE TASKS). Anything missing that you’d like to take care of because, I said, “you got in, I want you to stay in.”



Interviewer: Thinking about, like if you had a question about college, who would you be most comfortable going to?

Student: If I had a question about college I’d be most comfortable going to—do you want a specific name or just a counselor?

Interviewer: Either way.

Student: Either the college coach or one of my counselors (MOST COMFORTABLE). Just in fact that, even though my parents, they’re very pro-education, they didn’t get past high school, so in fact the college arena is a foreign world. They don’t really know what it’s like because they haven’t gone to it.

Interviewer: And who would you say was the most helpful to you in the process?

Student: The college coach because she spends—if you’re close to her—she helps everyone, but if you’re always in there, she gets to know your personality, so it’s like “I’m thinking about going to College’, she’s like ‘oh no, no, no, your personality does not need to be there.’ So she’s a good judge of character so she was very influential in helping me to decide the best place to go to school (MOST HELPFUL).


Interviewer: And what was the hardest part [about doing college applications]?

Student: The hardest part for me personally was my personal statement. I had to figure out a way, it sounds simple to just write 2-and-a-half pages, but for me, I had to figure out a way—now who is my audience, and how am I going to sit here and in 2 pages tell them my life story, my aspirations, why it is I should belong to be here without sounding like I’m trying to sell myself. So that was the hardest part for me. Because when I did it at first, the college coach said just write. And I wrote and it was like 5 pages, and she’s like ‘you’re out your mind; like no one’s going to read this.’ Which is true, I wouldn’t read it. So that was the hardest part, like finding a way to condense everything that I’m about in about a page and a half, something that someone would actually be able to read and make a decision.

Interviewer: And the college coach helped with it?

Student: The college coach helped, and she also brought in, paid out of high school’s pocket, brought in [writing] coaches. They make their living off of teaching people how to do resumes, personal statements for college, the whole application process, so I went to those classes two days out the week for 3 weeks, from 4 to 6:00 (DETAILED HELP WITH COLLEGE TASKS; GROUPS). We could not leave. The college coach was like ‘you’re going to sit here and you’re going to do your personal essay.’ And they make us, if they didn’t like it, do it over (MONITORING). So she brought in extra people.


Interviewer: You talked about the college coach already, but when did you first meet with her?

Student: Junior year, maybe a month into school. I didn’t even know what the college resource room was. I was kind of shy because I had to start all over, but I didn’t even know what that was. But then I met her, and we hit it off, and she’s just been in my corner ever since (TRUST).

Interviewer: So how many times during senior year would you say you went to her?

Student: I’m in her room, or she’s in [the college resource room] where I’m at anyway, I’m in there like everyday. If I just need the computer or something, we’re always in there talking and chatting and everything (FREQUENCY).



Example from a Coach

Example from a Student



You know, you go on the [computer] system, look up all students who have a 3.3 or higher GPA, go in the auditorium with the list, call the names of the students to the front and then talk to that group together and then say, “I’m going to hound you until you actually do this.” It requires that much work. (Dana)

[The college coach] came in my class once in my [home room] and asked if I could come down during my lunch period [to the college room], and I was like okay. (Student)


Build Trust

You really need to develop a rapport with the student, that’s really the most important thing … and once you do that … you’re much more able to assist that student because then you have a better idea about what it is that they want to do …  [and] students begin to feel more comfortable with you if they see that you’re making the effort. (Carla)

Interviewer: So who were you most comfortable going to for college information?

Student: [College coach] ’cause she knows about [college], because she’s honest. Sometimes she might be a little mean, but she’s really honest about schools and which ones you should or shouldn’t go to.


Enlist Students

I had the ambassadors—I would train them on how to help kids to do their FASFAs, on how to help them register for their PIN numbers, to do college searches and scholarship searches. So once I would train [the ambassadors], when the students would come in. … First [the ambassadors] would get the students in. We’re talking about students coming after school (laughs). Unbelievable. So they would get the students in. (Judith)

Most of us, the ambassadors, we’re done with everything. We’ve been accepted. We know what college. We know the FAFSA and everything. So now we’re helping [other students]. (Student)


Work in Groups

We have several workshops where we … have school coordinators that’ll come out and assist with walking [students] through the process if they are still unsure. And then with the Ambassadors, I will also make them leaders where they assist. So we’ll have like a table of 5 students with either a student leader or an adult who will lead them through the process. (Ramona)

There was a lot of days when a lot of parents could come in [the college room] and when I went there, there wasn’t like many, maybe 2 or 3. They had workshops for students if they wanted to do their FAFSA. [The college coach] stayed at school or after school for whoever, so it was easy. (Student)


Access to Expertise

Those bottom 100 students are the ones that I really do call and then go get (Dana).



Social Support

For any school that [the students] got accepted to, I would put their name on the wall so people could walk by and see that they got accepted to this school and that school and I just didn’t take one, if they had several acceptances, I put them allllll up there. … They could see the students that were going to school and the schools that they had gotten accepted to and that made them want to do better because even the kids who weren’t applying at first, they’d say “Well I want my name on the board,” and I’d say “Well, apply.” (Judith)



Learning Spillovers

I would be talking to one person and have somebody else on a computer, you know I see them listening, and they’re probably going through the same thing, so I start to talk a little bit louder. (Portia)



Detailed Help with College Tasks

I take them to a lot of college fairs, like actually walk them through, you know, telling them the questions to ask. (Susan)

Student: [The college coach] went step by step with us [through the FAFSA] so [my mom and I] didn’t have any questions about anything. [The college coach] answered all of the questions, she knew all about the financial aid. ...

Interviewer: And do you remember how much time [the college coach] spent helping you with it?

Student:  Me, a day.

Interviewer: A day, and was that like a whole day or

Student: No, I’m gonna say, 3 hours.


Monitoring of College Actions

We have like lists, and we have a computer program where pretty much anytime you meet with a kid, you put in their information, um, where they applied, where they were denied, where they’re going, you know, they’re not going to college, they’re going to go directly into the workforce, military. So through those different resources, we’re able to say, “well, the majority of the kids in [this class] haven’t made any plans.” We have to do something, call them in, or set up a meeting with them or something like that. (Oriana)

Interviewer: Ok, have you talked to anyone about the FAFSA here at school?

Student: Oh yeah, [the college coach], that’s the FAFSA lady.

Interviewer: What’d she tell you?
Student: "You gotta apply for FAFSA. You better get on it, [student's name]. You applied?" I’m getting there. … So she keep asking me that.


Student Reported Frequency of Coach Contact

Does not apply to coaches

Interviewer: How many times during senior year do you think you met with [the college coach]?

Student: Everyday.

Interviewer: Everyday for like how many months do you think?

Student: From the moment we started.

Interviewer: Until?  

Student: Later. Now.


From Spring Student Interview:1 Who Were you Most Comfortable Going to for College Information?

Does not apply to coaches

Interviewer: Ok. So who are you most comfortable going to with college questions?

Student: Um, [the college coach] because I don’t feel comfortable going to ask like my family members.


From Spring Student Interview:1 Who Was Most Helpful in the Process?

Does not apply to coaches

Interviewer: Who was most helpful to you in the college process?

Student: I’m gonna have to say [the college coach].

Interviewer: Ok. And why would you say that?

Student: Well, you know, cause she helps kids … you know, how to apply to colleges and financial aid. … I consider her, you know, as my mentor. You know, she helped me, you know, college applications and she give me all this college applications for different colleges and go on field trips.


Students’ Self-described "Laziness"

Does not apply to coaches

Interviewer: What kind of help do you think you’ll need in planning for college?

Student: Someone to push me because I could get lazy.

1. If the question was not asked during the spring interview but was asked during the fall interview, the student's fall response was used instead.


Note. Brackets indicate that words have been changed to protect the identity of coaches, students, or schools.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 4, 2013, p. 1-39
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16915, Date Accessed: 3/22/2017 6:14:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Stephan
    American Institutes for Research
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER STEPHAN is a researcher at the American Institutes for Research. Her current research focuses on college access and success, and, more broadly, she is interested in how schools, programs, and policies reduce or reinforce social stratification. Her recent publications include Stratification in College Entry and Completion (Rosenbaum, & Person, 2009) and “Beyond One-Size-Fits-All College Dreams: Alternative Pathways to Desirable Careers” (Rosenbaum, Stephan, & Rosenbaum, 2010).
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