To and Through College: The Need for Postsecondary Transition Support Programs

This blog post was written by Jennifer Hogg of Social Policy Research Associates.

The leaky pipeline to a bachelor’s degree is getting leakier for low-income students. While the U.S. saw a decrease in college enrollment among all income brackets between 2008 to 2013, the decrease was even larger for students from low-income families.[i]

Among those students who do enroll in college, most do not leave with a degree. While roughly half of students from low-income backgrounds enroll in college, fewer than one-third of those who enroll actually graduate.[ii]

College persistence and completion, particularly among underserved groups, have been the focus of research and public discussion since the 1970s, yet outcomes have not measurably improved. This may be due to the amount of time spent measuring and understanding the problem, relative to the time spent testing and measuring potential solutions.[iii] However, emerging work has highlighted promising key practices to help students, particularly low-income or first-generation students, finish college:

  1. Fix faculty incentives. The current postsecondary incentive structure rewards faculty who spend time on research, not instruction. College faculty are not trained as instructors, and have little incentive to spend time thinking about their pedagogy, curriculum, or grading practices. Furthermore, first-year courses are typically taught by new and less experienced faculty. Low-quality educational experiences can be frustrating and overwhelming, especially for students who experience stereotype threat[iv] or don’t have access to academic support resources, and can lead to students dropping out.[v]
  2. Offer sufficient financial aid to allow students to focus on school. Increases in state and federal grant money and other forms of financial assistance have not kept pace with the growing cost of attending a four-year institution.[vi] Many students must balance their classwork with part-time or even full-time jobs during college, and most studies conclude that jobs are harmful to students’ GPAs only when the number of hours worked per week exceeds 20. In addition, students experiencing more financial stress may perceive that the costs of college outweigh the benefits, particularly as stories of burdensome lifelong debt gain notoriety. Furthermore, students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to live off-campus, affecting their ability to participate in campus activities and develop social connections. Alleviating the financial burden these students experience can contribute to lowering the dropout rate.
  3. Ensure every student has a caring adult who can help navigate the transition from high school to postsecondary. This is especially true for first generation college students, whose parents lack the first-hand experience with the college transition process. Research has shown that mentorship programs for transition-aged youth can have a significant impact on college enrollment and retention, particularly for students facing greater barriers.[vii] In a study of first-generation college students, students reported that mentors made a difference by encouraging them to go to college; helping them prepare academically; guiding them through the application and financial aid processes; and supporting them through the academic, social, and cultural transition to college.[viii]

While solution #1 (“Fix faculty incentives”) must originate from within colleges and universities, outside organizations seeking to improve college persistence and completion can move the needle by investing in solutions #2 (financial aid) and #3 (mentorships). The REACH (Resilience, Education, Adventure, Community and Health) program, funded by the Orfalea Foundation, did just that for approximately 68 low- to medium-income students from California’s Santa Barbara County during their junior year of high school through their sophomore year of college.

Offer sufficient financial aid to allow students to focus on school.

The program was generous with the range of financial supports provided to participants. This included scholarships, laptops, sending students on college visits, and—as needed—covering the fees for college entrance exams and applications. In addition, the program provided students with information and assistance in applying for financial aid. This support made the idea of attending college a reality for many students. While many of the REACH students held part-time jobs during college, most were able to keep their hours limited to under 20 per week

Ensure every student has a caring adult who can help them navigate the transition from high school to postsecondary.

Mentorship was a cornerstone of the REACH model. Most mentorship models focus on the lead-up to college (navigating the world of college entrance exams, applications, filing FAFSA forms), OR the early college years (supporting students during a time of intense academic, emotional, social, and cultural transition). The REACH program provided students with mentors throughout the entire pre- and post-college enrollment phase, in-person during high school and virtually during college. This model has several advantages:

  1. Sufficient time to build an expectation of college-going and success. By starting in students’ junior year, REACH mentors were able to help participants envision postsecondary and career goals well in advance of the college application process.
  2. Time to develop meaningful relationships. Research suggests that programs with the greatest impact on postsecondary success tend to be those offering intensive services requiring a high level of involvement over an extended period of time.[ix] While other mentorship programs typically last one to two years, and may only meet with mentees sporadically, the REACH mentors participated in over one thousand hours of activities with their mentees during high school, which led to the creation of genuine relationships. The mentorship program became virtual once students entered college, and consisted of monthly video chats with only occasional in-person reunions. However, 50 percent of them emailed or texted between sessions as well, demonstrating the trust built throughout the program.
  3. Students have a go-to adult on Day One of college. Research has shown that the first year of college is critical.[x] College-based mentorship programs may not pair students with mentors until several months in to the school year, missing the most difficult and critical time for students. The REACH students had access to their mentors during these early, critical months.

REACH students had this to say about their experience of the program at the end of their sophomore years of college:

  • Having a strong relationship with their REACH mentors helped them feel more confident approaching people in positions of authority.
  • REACH helped them develop the confidence and skills to develop mentor relationships with other adults in their lives.
  • The program had a positive impact on their desire to learn.
  • REACH played a significant, influential role in helping them set short- and long-term goals for postsecondary education.

Getting students into college is only the first step. Ensuring students have the support they need to complete their degrees, particularly those facing greater barriers, is imperative for promoting a society built on inter-generational mobility. The REACH program designed a promising, research-informed model to do just that.

Read more about our evaluation of the REACH program here.



[i] Who Gets to Graduate? (2014, May 15). Retrieved from
[ii] Bailey, M., & Dynarski, S. (2011). Gains and gaps: changing inequality in U.S. college entry and completion. Retrieved from
[iii] Tinto, V. (2006-2007). Research and practice of student retention: What next? Journal of College Student Retention, 8, 1–19.
[iv] Stereotype threat research demonstrates that individuals will underperform on a task when a stereotype associated with their identity becomes relevant. Low-income individuals have historically been stigmatized as having lower intelligence and ability. In this case, when low-income students are in a college setting dominated by middle- and high-income norms, they may attribute their academic struggles to the stereotype associated with their income or class background.
[v] Tinto, V. (2006-2007).
[vi] Where Have All the Low-Income Students Gone? (2015, November 25). Retrieved from
[vii] Bettinger, E., & Baker, R. (2011). The effects of student coaching in college: An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student mentoring. Retrieved from
[viii] Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O’Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the source –What works for first-generation college students. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from
[ix] Cabrera, A.F., & S.M. La Nasa. (2001). On the path to college: Three critical tasks facing America’s disadvantaged. Research in Higher Education, 42, 2, 199-249.
[x] Tinto, V. (2006-2007).