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An Introduction to College Access Programs

American Youth Policy Forum
Most college access programs provide activities such as financial counseling, last dollar scholarships, college visits, career guidance, tutoring, academic counseling, and test preparation courses. These comprehensive college access programs are increasingly viewed as critical partners in the effort to encourage more young people to pursue post-secondary education.

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More and more, education and policy leaders are focusing on improving college access rates, particularly for low-income, minority, and first-generation students. College access programs are growing across the nation, and community-based nonprofit organizations and statewide networks have expanded to supplement the college advising role traditionally provided by high schools. Increasingly, colleges and universities themselves, create outreach and access initiatives as a way to enroll a more diverse student body and improve parity in college-going rates.

Most college access programs provide activities such as financial counseling, last dollar scholarships, college visits, career guidance, tutoring, academic counseling, and test preparation courses rather than provide opportunities for dual credit, as the programs in this compendium do. These more comprehensive college access programs are increasingly viewed as critical partners in the effort to encourage more young people to pursue postsecondary education. While AYPF did not intend to include the traditional, community-based college access programs in this compendium, as we were looking for evaluations of SPLOs, we found that a number of nationally known college access programs — AVID, GEAR UP, and Project GRAD-had been evaluated and that this information would be helpful to readers.

The three programs summarized in the following section are primarily housed in the public K-12 system, with a focus on the middle grades and high school years. The evaluations demonstrate the effectiveness of these programs in increasing the number of first-generation, low-income, and students of color attending and succeeding in college.


Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) is a 5th- through 12th-grade program to prepare students for four-year college eligibility. AVID closes the achievement gap by targeting students in the academic middle — B, C, and even D students — who have the desire to go to college and the willingness to work hard. These students are capable of completing a rigorous curriculum, but have fallen short of their potential. Typically, they come from low-income and/or minority families and will be the first in their families to attend college. AVID puts students on the college track: “acceleration instead of remediation,” according to founder Mary Catherine Swanson.

AVID students enroll in their school’s honors and Advanced Placement classes and receive the necessary support and assistance to succeed through the AVID elective class. The AVID elective class meets for one period each day, during which students learn organizational and study skills, how to develop critical thinking skills and ask probing questions, receive academic help from peers and college tutors, and participate in enrichment and motivational activities that make college seem attainable. Students’ self-image improve, and they become academically successful leaders and role models for other students.

The AVID elective class is taught by a teacher who has been trained in the program’s methodology. Teachers and administrators from throughout the school and district attend AVID’s Summer Institutes, where they learn techniques for bringing out the best in average students. In this way, AVID students are supported in content-area classrooms, as well as in the AVID elective, allowing even more students to benefit from the AVID program. The AVID curriculum, based on rigorous standards, was developed by middle and high school teachers in collaboration with college professors. It is driven by the WIC-R method, which stands for writing, inquiry, collaboration, and reading, and is used in both the AVID elective classes and content-area classes.

A well-developed AVID program improves school-wide standardized test scores, advanced course enrollments, and the number of students attending college. Since 1990, more than 30,000 AVID students have graduated from high school and gone on to college. National statistics indicate that 95% of AVID students report enrolling in college, 77% in four-year institutions, and 17% in community colleges. The national average for four-year college enrollment is 35%. Currently, AVID is operating in more than 2,200 middle and high schools in 36 states and 15 countries. Large urban schools, tiny rural schools, resource-rich schools, and struggling schools all find that AVID meets the needs of their students in the middle.

Research Highlights

From AVID: A Comprehensive School Reform Model for Texas (2002-2003) by Karen Watt, PhD, Darlene Yanez, and Griselda Cossio:

  • Findings suggest that AVID improves outcomes for all students in the school, as the total number of students enrolled in rigorous courses increased.
  • Researchers also found that student enrollment in the AVID elective increased over the two years and non-AVID teachers adopted many of AVID’s strategies.
  • After two years in AVID, students improved their pass rates on the 1999 TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) by 15% in math and 7% in reading.

From Constructing School Success, Cambridge University Press (1999) by Hugh Mehan, Irene Villanueva, Lea Hubbard, and Angela Lintz:

AVID has shown great success with racial and ethnic subgroups that have been severely underrepresented in higher education. Research conducted on AVID students in the San Diego Unified School District, where there was high participation among these groups, found that:

  • Latino AVID graduates attended postsecondary education at a rate 2 times the national average
  • African American AVID graduates attended at a rate 1.5 times the national average

From Longitudinal Research of AVID 1999-2000: Final Report (2000) by Larry F. Guthrie, PhD, and Grace P. Guthrie, PhD:

College retention rates of all AVID students is excellent; 89% are still enrolled in college two years after their high school graduation. Other short-term and long-term effects on student outcomes include:

  • Middle school students who had two years of AVID had significantly higher high school GPAs in 10th and 11th grades than their peers with only one year of AVID or no exposure to AVID during middle school.
  • AVID does prepare students for success in rigorous high school courses such as AP. More than twice the percentage of students with two years of AVID in middle school took three or more AP classes than those with one year of AVID or less during middle school.
  • Follow-up research done on a small portion of the student sample shows that 84% of these AVID high school graduates had completed the course sequence necessary for admissions to the two California university systems; the California state average is 34%.
  • Of these AVID graduates, 95% were enrolled in postsecondary education with 75% attending a four-year college, three times the state average.
  • Their mean college GPA was 2.94, and 85% of these students indicated it was their intention to graduate within four or five years of entering college.


Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a discretionary grant program of the US Department of Education designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides states with six-year grants to create partnerships that provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools. GEAR UP grantees serve an entire cohort of students beginning no later than the 7th grade and follow the cohort through high school. GEAR UP funds are also used to provide college scholarships to low-income students.

GEAR UP is unique from other initiatives, as it employs partnerships between school districts, institutions of higher education, and at least one community organization partner. All partners must be committed to serving and accelerating the academic achievement of cohorts of students through their high school graduation. The GEAR UP grant requires that partners match the dollars one for one. GEAR UP partnerships supplement, not supplant, existing reform efforts; offer services that promote academic preparation and the understanding of necessary costs to attend college; provide professional development; and continuously build capacity so that efforts can be sustained beyond the term of the grant.

Research Highlights


  • San Jose State University and San Jose Unified School District report an 89% increase in the number of students from the high schools served by GEAR UP who qualified and applied for admissions to any of the University of California or California State University campuses since. Ninety-four percent of 12th-grade students at the three high schools served by the GEAR UP grantee applied for college; 90% have been accepted into college; and 52% qualified for four-year colleges.
  • The number of 11th-grade students at the North Hollywood High School GEAR UP Project in Los Angeles Unified School District taking the SAT increased 74% over the past year. For the 2005 March SAT, 169 11th-grade students sat for the exam, a significant increase over just one year. Many of these juniors who took the exam did extremely well, with 44% scoring above 1,000, the national average for seniors.
  • Last year, the Academic Performance Index goal for El Sausal Middle School in Salinas, California, was 17%. However, with new initiatives on curriculum alignment, professional development workshops, and additional instruction that GEAR UP brought to the school, El Sausal’s Academic Performance Index increased to 43%.

New York

  • The 8th-grade students at Westbury Middle School in Westbury, New York, who participated in a GEAR UP program showed a gain of 20% on the spring New York State English/Language Arts Assessment. This is the highest gain of any other middle school in Nassau County. The students improved from 32% in 2001 to 52% on the same test this spring.


  • At the East Texas GEAR UP Project, the number of students taking algebra in 8th or 9th grade has increased from 69.3% of the student population to 90.4% since the inception of GEAR UP, reflecting a 20.1% increase.

Project GRAD

Project Graduation Really Achieves Dreams (GRAD) is a comprehensive program with a record of improving the academic achievement of students from low-income backgrounds. Project GRAD was founded on the belief that there is a relationship between a student’s family life, discipline problems, mathematics achievement, reading achievement, and college goals.

Project GRAD’s integrated approach to teaching and learning hinges on the five pillars of its structural approach. These include:

  • Employing Existing Assets (Professional Development)
    Project GRAD provides training and support to staff to equip them to succeed in their work with students.
  • The Feeder System
    A feeder system consists of a high school and all the middle and elementary schools that send or “feed” students to the high school. Working within a feeder system also makes it possible to provide a comprehensive educational experience to children, in that there is an aggregated effect created by offering all the program components, at all grade levels, at the schools in which students are likely to enroll.
  • The Local Project GRAD Organization
    In each city, an independent nonprofit organization is established to oversee the implementation of Project GRAD’s components by working with the program component providers, the feeder schools, the school district, and the local community.
  • Community Involvement and Collaboration
    Project GRAD actively seeks community engagement. Project GRAD provides an avenue for local corporations, foundations, universities, and concerned individuals to contribute to the success of public school students in their community. This is achieved through financial contributions as well as through direct involvement, including mentoring, tutoring, and event sponsorship.
  • Project GRAD USA
    GRAD USA is a national organization that provides technical assistance, quality assurance, and some funding for all Project GRAD sites.

These five fundamental components of GRAD’s structure have allowed it to sustain and improve a comprehensive program that responds to and advances each individual student, teacher, and administrator within an entire feeder system and school district.

Project GRAD’s program has five core components.

  • Mathematics
    At the heart of Project GRAD’s mathematics program is a teaching system that promotes a balance between each student’s understanding of mathematical concepts and computational fluency in grades K-8. The program also incorporates algebra at every grade level to ensure preparation for more advanced courses in high school and beyond.
  • Literacy
    Project GRAD focuses on teaching reading at the elementary level to ensure reading success for every student. In short, the GRAD-supported program focuses on early intervention and acceleration so that students have the opportunity to move ahead in their reading achievement.
  • Classroom Management
    In each of GRAD’s schools, classroom management consultants regularly observe classes, demonstrate key strategies, conduct student and teacher surveys, and help teachers plan lessons. Students become self-disciplined by experiencing greater responsibility in resolving conflicts, participating in decision-making, and managing the classroom.
  • Social Services & Parental Involvement
    In each Project GRAD school, campus-based professionals provide dropout prevention, counseling, community outreach, and family case-management services to all at-risk youth. As a result, students and their parents learn how to access the private and public community resources that will help them meet their social, economic, and health needs, and appreciate the value and importance of education.
  • The High School Program
    When the partnership between GRAD and a high school, the apex of a K-12 feeder system, is established, a campus-based Scholarship Coordinator, together with social services/parent involvement staff, work to help students graduate and gain access to college through a number of key activities and programs.

Project GRAD’s unique structural approach, along with its program components, contributes to higher academic standards and offers the dream of graduation and college to all students it serves. The cornerstone of Project GRAD is a scholarship for student participants if they meet certain requirements, such as a 2.5 GPA, specific coursework, and attendance at summer institutes.

On average, Project GRAD costs approximately 5%-7% of the annual per student spending in the public schools where implemented. By focusing on a carefully selected set of high impact interventions, the Project GRAD program has been designed from the outset to produce significant results cost effectively.

Research Highlights

Atlanta, Georgia

  • On the 2000 Georgia High School Graduation Test, Washington High School Atlanta, a Project GRAD school, lagged behind district pass rates by 10 points and the state by 15. By 2002, the gap with the district was nearly closed and the gap with the state was halved.
  • Additionally, improvements in reading, language arts, and mathematics of up to 24.6 points have been noted in 4th-, 6th-, and 8th-grade student performance on the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) in GRAD schools.
  • Over the last year, Project GRAD has increased 4th-grade scores on the mathematics and reading portions of the Georgia Criterion Referenced Competency Test by 16 and 9 points, respectively. These gains are significantly higher than those seen in non-GRAD elementary schools in the district.

Newark, New Jersey

  • In 2000, a 13-point difference existed in the percent of students passing 4th-grade reading (Elementary School Proficiency Assessment Test) between GRAD Newark (Central Feeder) schools and the district. By 2002, GRAD had substantially narrowed this gap to 4 points.
  • Similar progress was made with 8th-grade reading, where Project GRAD students closed the achievement gap from 8 to 0 points between 2001 and 2003.

Cincinnati, Ohio

  • Project GRAD Cincinnati has increased the percentage of students who pass the Ohio Grade Three Proficiency Test between 2002 and 2003. Each one of the four feeder elementary schools has shown dramatic improvements over the past school year.
  • In 2003, the student attendance rate at Western Hills University High School was 83%. In 2004, however, the attendance rate at the GRAD high school increased to 95%, 1% higher than the current district average of 94%.

Houston, Texas

  • In 1997, only six Project GRAD students enrolled in advanced placement courses, and only one scored above 3 points (the passing grade). By 2003, 416 students had enrolled in AP courses, of which 163 scored a 3 or higher.
  • Furthermore, in 2003, Davis and Yates High Schools ranked 1st and 3rd, respectively, among all district high schools in the number of students offered academic scholarships for college.
Brown Lerner, J. and Brand, B. (2006). The College Ladder: Linking Secondary and Postsecondary Education for Success for All Students. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.