Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Intensive College Counseling and the College Enrollment Choices of Low-Income Students

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 2:45 PM
Tuttle Center (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Benjamin L. Castleman, University of Virginia and Joshua Goodman, Harvard University
Background and Objectives

            Gaps in college completion by family income have widened over time (Bailey and Dynarski, 2012). Research suggests that students who attend higher-quality institutions, as measured by institutional characteristics like six-year graduation rates, are more likely to persist in college and earn a degree (Authors, 2013; Hoxby and Turner, 2013).

Many communities rely on more intensive college advising models to improve both overall college access and choice among low-income students. Though community-based college advising programs have existed for decades, existing research evidence is mixed in terms of the impact on important postsecondary outcomes (Avery, 2010; Avery 2013; Carrell and Sacerdote, 2013; Seftor, Mamun, and Schirm, 2009).

To address this gap in the literature, we evaluate the impact of an intensive college advising program called Bottom Line on low-income students’ college enrollment and persistence. Bottom Line, which operates programs in Boston and Worcester, Massachusetts, provides advising throughout the senior year of high school and its advisors meet individually with students to develop lists of well-matched colleges and universities to which they can apply., once students have received acceptances, assist students in choosing which college to attend.

A somewhat unique feature of the Bottom Line model is its emphasis on encouraging students to apply to and attend a set of 20 target colleges and universities. Bottom Line has identified these schools as institutions where students have a greater probability of graduating without incurring excessive loan debt.

 Empirical Strategy

Data for this analysis come from Bottom Line, from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Our sample consists of nearly 3,000 Bottom Line applicants from the classes of 2010 through 2012 who had valid (i.e. non-missing) GPAs and were successfully merged to DESE’s data. Over two-thirds of applicants are female and a similar number are black or Hispanic. Nearly four-fifths are low income, as measured by receipt of subsidized lunch. Over half speak a language other than English at home.  

            We use a GPA threshold in Bottom Line’s admissions process to implement a fuzzy regression discontinuity design (RD) that compares the college outcomes of students just above and below that threshold. This GPA cut-off was not well-publicized, nor do we find evidence of strategic positioning of students just above the eligibility threshold.


Our regression discontinuity analysis yields several findings. First, the intensive college advising offered by Bottom Line induces a substantial number of students to enroll in one of the encouraged four-year colleges rather than in discouraged four-year colleges or two-year colleges. Second, treatment reduces the average net price of the institutions students are attending, likely lowering their financial burden. Bottom Line induces students to enroll in four-year colleges with average net prices $7,400 lower than they otherwise would have. Fourth, we see suggestive but not conclusive evidence of increases in overall four-year college enrollment and persistence through the first two years of college.