COLLEGE BOUND: Visualize, Strategize, Go!

February 28, 2012

College Ambition Program (CAP) helps more students achieve their higher education hopes through whole-school, holistic approach

By Nicole Geary

College is basically the only thing you “see” when you walk into the CAP Center at Eastern High School.

Admissions viewbooks cover tables and bookshelves and brightly colored university pennants point like arrows around the room.

Everything that happens there – tips for homework, research on scholarships, conversations about career choices – is intended to help students visualize and achieve success in postsecondary education, no matter what challenges or doubts abound beyond those walls.

But unlike some programs created to increase college attendance rates among students of limited resources, it doesn’t end with a single room or a certain approach. The College Ambition Program (CAP) mixes multiple strategies known to influence college attainment – including campus visits – into one program, and makes them available to the entire school.

Actually, four schools so far.

As the demand for more American youth to become college graduates grows, researchers in the Michigan State University College of Education believe they are developing a promising school-based model to help students make the complex transition from high school to college.

CAP is funded by the National Science Foundation, staffed by a talented, diverse team of graduate students and founded on 15 years of research by University Distinguished Professor Barbara Schneider, the principal investigator.

American teenagers and their families, as Schneider’s research has shown, often have very high ambitions but lack the tools and information they need to make them a reality. She first stressed that conclusion, based on a landmark study of 7,000 teens, in her 1999 book with David Stevenson, The Ambitious Generation.

This disconnect is especially great for students from low-income families. According to the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS: 2002), students of low socioeconomic status aspire to attend college at rates similar to their middle and higher income peers but lag in college enrollment rates by at least 20 percentage points.

CAP is designed to even the playing field.

The program places a particular emphasis on addressing issues at stake for under-represented students in urban schools, as well as rural locations where less research has been conducted. It also focuses, in part, on preparing students to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), fields that continue to outpace overall job growth.

“It’s always been my dream to construct an intervention that was solidly based on adolescent development and what we have learned, to help students who have the qualifications to go to college but not the right knowledge and opportunities,” said Schneider, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Chair in education at MSU.

“The components are integrated in a holistic way so we can try to change not only the expectations but the strategic plans of young people as they think about college.”


Four components, 1-on-1

Take, for example, one recent high school graduate who is now a freshman at University of Michigan. He says going to college was always his plan, even though it had never been a reality in his family.

He had top-notch grades and he was hell-bent on being a better role model for his four younger siblings.

But by junior year, the student had already taken the highest level math course available at his school. He didn’t know how to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), or where he had the best chances to be admitted.

He needed more resources.

CAP staff including former program director Clay Braggs helped arrange for the student to dual-enroll in calculus classes offered on MSU’s campus. They helped him develop his college entrance essay themes and suggested many otherwise-unknown financial options to fund his college education along the way.

“Even with me being on top of things, they were on top of me to make sure I was on top of those things,” said the student, who is now attending U-M on a full ride.

The advising staff at his high school, as in most cash-strapped urban areas, is stretched thin – the average counselor-to-student ratio in Michigan is about 1 to 630. And his parents, working hard to provide for their households, don’t have experience with what it takes to thrive in college.

“I can’t really go to them and say, ‘I’m having this problem,’” he said. “The CAP team definitely made me feel that I am not so alone in this.”

Now in its second year of implementation, the College Ambition Program aims to be fully embedded in the culture at each school.

A coordinator who works closely with the principal, counseling staff and teachers is on site from approximately 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at least three days each week. Graduate assistants and student volunteers – mostly undergrads majoring in education or mathematics and science fields – work together to offer four major components:

  • Mentoring and tutoring
  • Course counseling
  • Financial aid advising
  • College visits

“We’re the only program I know of doing ALL of the things we’re doing,” said Kri Burkander, CAP site supervisor and a doctoral student in the Educational Policy program at MSU. “We know that each of them matter.”

The high schools selected to participate in CAP (so far, two urban and two rural) have lower than average college enrollment rates.

Conversations about achieving postsecondary dreams, Burkander says, often begin during after-school tutoring – a time for help with schoolwork students already have to do, and when many students begin to realize how their grades will stack up in the competitive college application process.

Course counseling goes hand in hand with mentoring and tutoring. CAP tutors/mentors encourage students to take the most rigorous courses possible early on, and they are there nearly every day to make sure they don’t drown in the content.

Mentors are recruited through collaborative partnerships with departments and organizations at MSU, such as the Honors College, Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) and the Department of Teacher Education. They attend a two-hour training session developed by Burkander for CAP where they learn how to build relationships with, listen to and empower youth.

They practice how to ask effective questions, especially about career goals, college hopes and the very-personal obstacles (financial or otherwise) that may seem impossible to overcome.

“If you are in 12th grade and you have had no one asking you those questions, you really are at a loss,” Burkander said. “And that’s happening. That happens to way too many kids.”


Making it real

Visiting several college campuses may be the norm for middle and upper class families, but transportation issues, parent work schedules and other variables make those trips off limits for many teens.

Most students in CAP schools, which are all located near East Lansing, have never even been to Michigan State.

So CAP brings them on campus, and takes them to a variety of four-year colleges and universities across the region. Schneider and her team believe these site visits, available to all students 5-6 times each school year at no cost, are a critical component that is often missing from interventions designed to increase college entrance.

Research on the topic has been nearly non-existent in the literature.

When students sign up for the CAP-arranged excursions, they attend a preliminary workshop, explore aspects of each campus from academics to social activities and write down their reflections about the experience while they are still on the bus. Researchers also collect data during individual semi-structured interviews soon after the trips.

Preliminary evidence, as presented at the 2011 national conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), shows the college visits can help students better understand information such as admissions requirements and available scholarships. But most importantly, they can help students visualize what it would be like to be a college student. As one teen said, “I can actually see myself like walking around, being a part of the community, rather than just some student.”

For some, the visits seemed to completely overturn original assumptions: “It’s not exactly like high school, as I thought it would be, which is why I didn’t want to go in the first place. But it’s just something that … I’ll at least try now, instead of just giving up completely.”

Students in CAP schools also have had opportunities to explore what it means to be a scientist through field trips to places such as the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL), the School of Packaging and the Department of Forestry, all at MSU. They have brought their parents to information nights on financial aid.

“It’s all about expanding their knowledge base in a way that allows them to make more informed decisions,” said graduate research assistant Justina Judy, also a doctoral student in Educational Policy.

If CAP can help students visualize themselves in college and transform their interests into a realistic action plan, then the hope is that they will not only get into college, but persist once they are there. That, Judy says, is the conceptual framework of CAP.

Ten Steps: The College Ambition Program uses
a 10-step checklist to help high school students prepare for college. Video tutorials for each step featuring Leah Beasley-Wojick (left), a doctoral student in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education at MSU, are available at

The program provides the details students need to realize their ambitions, in part, through the “Ten Steps” checklist.

CAP mentors refer to the materials, developed by Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education doctoral student Leah Beasley-Wojick, like a curriculum as they work with students. They are also publicly available – with videos – on the program website for high school students, parents and teachers.

“It is not revolutionary; everything we do has been done before,” said Judy, who handles much of the data collection and analysis for CAP. “It takes what we know about preparing for college and packages it in a way that makes sense for schools, in a way that works with schools.”


Measuring the impact

CAP has been gathering information about students’ postsecondary ambitions, preparation and knowledge, and comparing the sample to state and national data, through an initial online survey administered to students in all grades and a senior exit survey at the end of the school year. The research design also incorporates interviews, observations and mentor contact logs.

Although it is too soon to establish a significant effect of CAP, data from the spring 2011 exit survey showed a 10 percent increase in the number of seniors planning to attend college in the fall, compared to spring of 2010. That’s a good start, at least, for realizing CAP’s goal to increase the number of students who matriculate to four-year schools by 10 to 15 percent.

With a growing collection of preliminary data, the next step is to scale-up. Schneider hopes to expand to 16 schools, which would generate enough data to have evidence that would justify scaling up the intervention.

Her team will continue to fine-tune the model as they learn more about what it takes to influence individual students’ thinking about postsecondary education and – perhaps more importantly – the collective college-going culture of an entire school.

Urban or rural, Schneider says each school community has a unique identity that must be understood when introducing an intervention like CAP. The program is focused on identifying universal principles for increasing college expectations that can be adapted for use in all types of schools.

“We recognize that high schools are dynamic places,” she said. “In order to accommodate changing student populations and communities, we have to be aware of certain kinds of things as they relate to people making this transition into more education.”

So far the package of components CAP has targeted — mentoring, course counseling, financial aid advising and college visits — looks promising.

“While several other reformers have implemented aspects of this across the country, I remain convinced they have to be integrated to really make a difference,” Schneider said.

The program’s close collaboration with teachers, counselors and administrators in each building holds potential to make CAP sustainable after official funding comes to a close.

At Eastern High School at least, it seems the spirit of CAP has been spreading subtly down the hallways, and starting to reshape future plans for a growing number of students.

One senior there says no one talks about college at home, and it’s difficult to focus on her homework once she’s there. So she’s been spending time in the CAP Center until 5 p.m. nearly every day.

Last year, CAP staff members helped her through her first Advanced Placement courses. They took her to university campuses.

“It’s exciting and it gives me hope that I can go to college even though I am a minority student and I don’t have all the money to go,” she said.

“I wish it was here my freshman year because I would have had even more of a head start.”


*  Student names have been omitted to protect research subjects’ privacy.