Selective colleges and universities searching for programs to replace or supplement affirmative action plans should be wary of relying on precollege outreach programs to supply pools of qualified students, a new study suggests.
While precollege programs are effective in guiding poor and minority students to college, many such programs don’t help raise students’ academic profiles enough for them to be considered seriously for admission by the most prominent schools, the study’s author, Patricia Gandara, said in an interview last week.
The report, titled “Paving the Way to Higher Education: K-12 Intervention Programs for Underrepresented Youth,” concludes that a majority of the 33 programs studied helped students get admitted to community colleges and four- year institutions, but failed to help students enter the institutions where poor and minority students are most often underrepresented: the nation’s top four-year schools.
Those findings come as colleges and state policymakers from Maryland to California, faced with the curtailment of race-based admissions policies, are investing millions of dollars in such programs in the hope they will provide a direct pipeline of underrepresented students from the K-12 system into the more competitive reaches of higher education.
“I could find no data across the country that showed that there were significant increases in grade point average or any other measures of academic achievement” for participating students, said Ms. Gandara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who presented her findings at a conference on outreach programs in San Diego, Calif., last week. “Selective universities are banking on these. They say these will be the solution to the [end] of affirmative action.”
Relying on outreach programs is also problematic because many of the program administrators are not sufficiently organized in their efforts, Ms. Gandara said. Of the more than 1,000 programs up and running, only a handful have produced reliable evaluations to determine whether they are achieving the goals they have set forth, she said. Moreover, only one-third of all students who begin outreach programs complete them.
The programs studied were underwritten by private nonprofit and community organizations, K-12 systems, universities, and the federal government, and include such well-known endeavors as the I Have a Dream Foundation, Upward Bound, and the Puente Project.
Most programs in the sample are designed to be “add- ons” and take place after school or in the summer, Ms. Gandara said. That means that whatever occurs during program hours often doesn’t have a significant impact on students’ school days or overall academic experience, she said.
“They’re not systematic,” Ms. Gandara said of most such efforts. “They’re not embedded in the academic structure to make a change in how kids are experiencing [school].”
William Tierney, the director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, who has studied the issue, added: “We want [outreach] programs to enable a child from a low-income neighborhood to have as broad a choice as children from middle- and upper-income neighborhoods. In general, that’s not happening right now.”
Yet such outreach programs are “growing by leaps and bounds,” at least in part because funders are prosperous thanks to the vibrant economy, Mr. Tierney said.
The programs are also being used strategically to recruit minority students in California, Texas, and Washington state, places where voter initiatives or court decisions have prohibited racial preferences in public higher education.
Since 1998, state lawmakers in California have allocated $38 million annually to the 10-campus University of California system to expand current outreach programs and design new ones. Administrators at the University of Washington in Seattle, meanwhile, are asking the legislature to grant $888,000 to supplement the $9 million for outreach efforts in the 1999-2000 biennial budget.
The state of Wisconsin embarked on a 10-year effort to increase racial and ethnic diversity in 1998 that makes prominent use of precollege outreach programs at all 26 University of Wisconsin campuses.
And last summer, the federal government awarded $120 million in grants through the new Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP.
The program aims to match every college and university in the country with at least one middle school in a low-income community in a bid to increase college-going rates.
The partnerships must also include at least two other groups, which could be community, parent, religious, and nonprofit organizations, businesses, or state education agencies.
The GEAR UP program mandates that state provide both precollege preparation and scholarships as part of their plans of action. It is estimated that some 482,000 students will be aided.
“Regardless of how good an outreach program is, the best we may expect is to get [students] up to par,” said Watson Scott Swail, the associate director for policy analysis at the College Board in New York City. “If we get them to go on to postsecondary education and keep them there, that is a success.”
Outreach programs need to go beyond that to level the playing field, argues Hector Garza, the president of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes equity in education.
“At the heart of all this is to improve student achievement and outcomes to make sure that students become not only college-eligible but college-competitive,” Mr. Garza said. “California’s selective institutions can admit a class with an average grade point average above 4.0, but for poor and minority kids that have gone through schools that have underprepared them, they never can compete.”
Ms. Gandara said that outreach programs can fulfill a higher purpose by changing their formulas to include the following:
•Increasing program-completion rates;
•Increasing academic focus;
•Infiltrating core school activities;
•Providing supportive peer groups;
•Involving families and communities; and
•Providing financial support.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Minorities Need Path To Top Schools, Report Finds