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Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach

reviewed by James Goho - 2005

coverTitle: Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach
Author(s): William G. Tierney, ZoŽ B. Corwin and Julia E. Colyar (Editors)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791462765, Pages: 264, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Going to college is commonly seen as a way out of poverty and is a cornerstone of the American dream (Swail, 2000). College graduates have higher earnings (Leslie & Brinkman, 1988; Perna, 2003), healthier lifestyles, more life satisfaction, and greater community participation than high school graduates (Bowen, 1997; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

But postsecondary educational opportunities are not equitably distributed. Most students expect to go to college, but it is much more likely that students from affluent backgrounds with educated parents will attend than that those from low-income backgrounds will. In 1999–2000, 79 percent of high-income students compared with 31 percent of low-income students were enrolled in college or had attended college (Pell Institute, 2004). It is estimated that 7 percent of youth in the lowest income category attain a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 39 percent of youth from the middle income group and 52 percent from the highest income group (Pell Institute, 2004).

There is a huge gap between the dream and the reality. Access to postsecondary education can change the lives of youth of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and their families (Swail, 2000). However, the transition from high school to college is a major hurdle for many of these young people. A major policy issue is how to help students overcome this hurdle. College preparation programs are offered as means to improve college attendance rates. There are a wide variety of such programs, and many have been in place for a number of years, sometimes with limited success (Redd, 2004). However, it is likely unfair to critique preparation programs for failing to overcome all educational inequality, as much is attributable to social and economic structural factors. But such programs do need to be examined for their effectiveness, as having successful outreach programs is a national moral imperative to help the underrepresented achieve college entrance and graduation.

In Preparing for College: Nine Elements of Effective Outreach, William G. Tierney, Zoë B. Corwin, and Julia E. Colyar assemble a wide-ranging, connected sequence of studies from prominent researchers in an attempt to define and analyze the parameters of effective college outreach programs. College preparation programs are those programs that supplement or complement what takes place in school and are aimed to assist low-income minority youth. The goal of the book is to encourage discussion on the question “With a finite amount of time and resources, which activities are most likely to improve educational achievement for underrepresented youth in the Untied States?” This is a fundamental question for everyone who is interested in increasing the educational opportunities for those underrepresented in college populations.

The introductory chapter by the editors frames the arguments and discourse of the book. It outlines underlying assumptions and details nine components of college preparation programs (each framed, in the book, as a proposition): the role of culture, the influence of parents in preparing for college, the benefits of mentoring, how peer groups influence college access, whether counseling is critical, the key role of academic preparation, the importance of co-curricular activities, the timing of interventions, and the cost-effectiveness of interventions. The editors argue that these factors influence the development of the essential skills that youth need to navigate successfully into postsecondary education. Understanding the effects and the interrelationships among the factors will help in designing and delivering successful college preparation programs.

The editors are not trying to look at all possible components of such programs. They explicitly state they have limited the areas for study; for example, they do not address the area of financial aid for college attendance. Gladieux and Swail (1998) have argued that financial aid is not enough to increase rates of college participation among underrepresented youth but that more fundamental strategies are needed, including a focus on aspiration and academic preparation. This book aims to explore important strategies from a holistic perspective. It is centered on moving our understanding of college preparation programs forward by establishing a solid research synthesis and exploring the theoretical frameworks of each component, as well as the interrelationships among the components. The volume’s intent is not simply to describe college preparation endeavors, but to frame each chapter’s research synthesis through the propositions set forth in the introductory chapter, which act as hypotheses or debating points. The book has the feeling of an extended discussion with frequent cross-references in the chapters.

The book is organized into two major sections, framed by the introduction and a conclusion. The first section focuses on building an understanding of the role of culture, families, peers, mentors, and guidance counselors in college access. The second section explores four key elements in the design of successful college preparation programs: academics, co-curricular activities, timing, and costs. The book concludes with a chapter that summarizes the major findings, recommendations and suggestions for additional research in the preceding chapters.

In chapter 1, Villalpando and Solorzano examine the role of students’ culture in college preparation programs. This is a pivotal chapter in the book, as it establishes the critical role of integrating students’ culture into all aspects of college preparation. Swail and Perna (2002) found that most higher education outreach programs do not pay attention to the cultural identities of students. Villalpando and Solorzano confirm this finding and review the available research (which is not extensive) examining the effects of culture. Their take on the limited research is that college preparation programs focusing on cultural enrichment and on the development of academic skills together provide students with the resources to attend college. They emphasize the importance of having college preparation programs tailored in such a way that students can capitalize on their own cultural wealth.

Tierney and Auerbach, in chapter 2, examine the proposition that family engagement is critical for college attendance. Families, broadly defined, can significantly help children graduate from high school and go on to college. There are various forms of family engagement, with higher SES parents managing their children’s educational careers, while parents of color or low SES are often constrained in their role because of limited knowledge about education as well as structural barriers; they tend to give moral, emotional, and logistical support. Many of these parents want more information and contacts so they can give their children additional help. However, college preparatory programs often do not engage parents. Clearly a direction for outreach is to involve parents in such programs in culturally appropriate ways.

In chapter 3, Tierney and Colyar examine the role of peer groups. They find that the research does not provide a definitive answer about peer groups’ effects on college attendance rates for low-income urban minority youth. However, students are always part of peer groups, and effective college preparation programs should consider how peer groups can be involved in positive learning experiences.

McDonough looks at the role, history, effectiveness and needs for college counseling in college preparation in chapter 4. The research literature on the impact of counselors on student college preparation is not sizeable, so McDonough focuses on school counseling. She reports that there are seemingly contradictory findings, but that there appear to be some directions in the research results. Counselors do have impacts on students, both positive and negative. Some of the negative impacts are related to their lack of availability for counseling tasks. But counselors can be critical sources of information about going to college, guide students on academic matters, encourage college aspirations, and help with career goals. Counselors are needed for all students in this regard, but disadvantaged students are most at need, and it is not clear whether they are receiving the support they require.

Mentoring is often suggested as a method for enhancing academic outcomes for underrepresented youth, as it is for modeling other socially accepted behaviors through such organizations as Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Youth mentoring has an intuitive appeal, and there is research demonstrating the critical importance of a significant adult in the development of young people. In chapter 5, Gándara and Mejorado interrogate the research literature and discover that there is not a convincing body of evidence for the strong effects of mentors in increasing academic achievement and college attendance. However, good mentoring programs may have a positive effect on behavioral outcomes for at-risk adolescents under certain circumstances. A difficulty in studying the effects of mentoring is the lack of a clear theoretical exploration of the mechanisms through which mentoring works.

Perna assembles in chapter 6 a strong body of evidence supporting the essential role of rigorous academic preparation for college access. She finds that youth from low-income families are less likely to be academically prepared for college, often attend schools with less rigorous courses, and are less likely to be placed in academically rigorous courses. The research also suggests that ability groupings, particularly lower level mathematics courses (which should, according to Perna, be eliminated), disproportionately disadvantage low-income, African American, and Hispanic students.  Perna suggests four key initiatives: ensuring access to rigorous academic preparation, beginning this before high school, placing academic courses within an appropriate cultural context, and coordinating preparation programs between K–12 and colleges.

In chapter 7, Hearn and Holdsworth review the evidence on how high school students’ involvement in various co-curricular activities affects college attendance, with a view to understanding how such involvement may improve college preparation. The research literature in this area is not extensive, but the authors suggest that social activities can influence college prospects, although the influence is modest and largely indirect. The links are very thin here, as the authors note, and there is not convincing evidence. In many cases underrepresented youth face economic, social, and cultural barriers in regard to access to co-curricular activities.

Bonous-Hammarth and Allen frame the discussion in chapter 8 with sociological theory on the college choice process to explore the critical transition points in a student’s life and how these influence participation in college. The process of preparation for college is dynamic and developmental; skills and knowledge develop differentially over time, but but this development is often mediated by fixed deadlines in the application process. The research provides strong support for early (at a minimum by ninth grade) and highly structured and targeted college preparation programs.

In the final chapter, Swail examines the issues surrounding the relationship between the cost of college preparation program delivery and student success. He illustrates the technicalities involved in conducting cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness studies. The discussion helps clarify the role that cost analysis can play, because costs and benefits must be grappled with to ensure that interventions are worth it. He concludes by detailing four key cautions in understanding cost analyses and directs readers to more technical resources.

The book concludes with a wrap-up review by Rueda summarizing the key findings of the chapters. Each of the propositions set forth in the introductory chapter is reexamined in light of the assembled research, and the strands of research are woven together to explore the critical linkages among the various components of college preparatory programs. Some of the research in the book is reasonably conclusive in regard to the components of successful college preparation programs. For example, the research is decisive on the crucial role of a strong foundation in academics. Programs that start early and have rigorous academic preparation are more likely to be successful in helping students. Social support systems can play an important role in helping students access college. These systems include parents, mentors, peers, guidance counselors, and other community interveners. A crucial feature of effective support systems appears to be the integration of a student’s culture into those systems. In fact, it seems that programs emphasizing the culture of participants provide better support than those that do not.

The book has a cohesiveness that is not always found in edited volumes. The editors have focused the research and discussion in each chapter on a particular component of college preparation programs but have allowed and encouraged the elaboration of common themes, for example, the importance of cultural integrity in such programs. The book is an extremely valuable addition to our understanding of college outreach effects and is a rich source of research syntheses on key components of college preparation programs.


Bowen, H. R. (1997). Investments in learning: The individual and social value of American higher education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gladieux, L. E., & Swail, W. S. (1998). Financial aid is not enough: Improving the odds of college success. Washington, DC: College Board.

Leslie, L. L., & Brinkman, P.T. (1988). The economic value of higher education. New York: American Council on Education/Macmillan.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students. Oxford, UK: Jossey-Bass.

Pell Institute. (2004). Indicators of opportunity in higher education: Fall 2004 status report. Washington, DC: Author.

Perna, L. A. (2003). The private benefits of higher education: An examination of the earnings premium. Research in Higher Education, 44(4), 451–472.

Redd, K. S. (2004). Lots of money, limited options: College choice and student financial aid. NASFA Journal of Student Financial Aid, 34(3), 29–39.

Swail, W. S. (2000). Preparing America’s disadvantaged for college: Programs that increase college opportunity. New Directions for Institutional Research, 107, 85–101.

Swail, W. S., & Perna, L. A. (2002). Pre-college outreach programs: A national perspective. In W. G. Tierney & L. S. Hagedorn (Eds.), Increasing access to college: Extending possibilities for low-achieving students (Frontiers in Education) (pp. 15–34) Albany: State University of New York Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2465-2470
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11803, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:55:52 PM

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About the Author
  • James Goho
    Red River College
    E-mail Author
    JAMES GOHO is director of research and planning at Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. His research interests include surveys, college choice, student success, and the ethics of research. Currently, he chairs Red River Collegeís Research Ethics Board. He has had recent publications in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Journal of Distance Education, and Journal of Applied Research in the Community College. His most recent research endeavor is a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of academic selection interviews.
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