Giving Compass' Take:

• Matt Barnum reports that what appeared to be a simple, research-backed intervention to boost attendance by low-income students at top colleges failed - revealing the limitations of this type of intervention. 

• Could slight alterations have improved this intervention? Was the measured outcome the only or most important outcome? 

• Read about programs for low-income college students that work

It was supposed to be “a simple way to send poor kids to top colleges.”

Sending personalized college-application information and application fee waivers to high-achieving, low-income students pushed those students to attend more selective colleges, a 2013 study found.

Perhaps because it offered a cheap — just $6 per student! — way to solve a vexing social inequity, the study attracted a great deal of attention. The College Board, purveyor of the SAT, even decided to bring the idea to scale, launching their own effort to send encouragement and fee waivers to students nationwide.

“We can’t stand by as students, particularly low-income students, go off track and don’t pursue the opportunities they have earned,” College Board president David Coleman said in 2013.

Now, the results of that effort are in, and they don’t look anything like what many had hoped.

“Our interventions led to no change in the likelihood or sector of college enrollment,” the new paper, largely written by in-house researchers at the College Board, says.

The findings are an example of how even promising, research-backed ideas can wilt when they are expanded widely. And it’s a setback for the College Board, which under Coleman’s leadership has introduced a suite of high-profile initiatives meant to make the college process more equitable.

It’s also one piece of evidence that changing the college trajectories of America’s low-income students will require efforts more extensive than low-cost “nudges.”

Two other recent efforts, both in Michigan, offer more encouraging evidence that low-cost initiatives can encourage low-income students to attend college.

In one, researchers mailed high-achieving students from low-income families information about a unique full-tuition scholarship at the University of Michigan that they could receive without filling out the FAFSA form. Even though such students were already likely eligible for similar amounts of financial aid, those who received the offer letter were 15 percentage points more likely to enroll in the University of Michigan and much more likely to remain in college two years later. Many of them wouldn’t have attended college at all otherwise.

Read the full article about the failed college attendance intervention for low-income students by Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat.