Could 'Search' be Widening the College-Attendance Gap?

We recently attended the NACAC conference – a three-day, multi-thousand-attendee gathering of professionals dedicated to college advising and counseling.

Great news: we estimate that at a third of the panel discussions, round tables, and presentations related to attendance by students who have historically not made it to or through college often enough: first-generation students; those who don’t speak English at home; students of color; those who depend largely – or entirely – on financial aid. Our colleges and universities and our high school counselors, it would seem, care deeply about seeing more of these students attend and graduate from college.

Now the bad news: on the other hand, a fundamental proposition behind a significant element of the college-access world is broken.

Attending and exhibiting at NACAC were dozens of technology companies aiming at guiding students to college. The offerings of virtually every one of those companies start with a flawed concept: search.

Hoping to learn about a specific college? Search for it. Want to learn about colleges that fit your criteria? Conduct a search based on those criteria.

The flaw lies in the problem that search demands a level of awareness that many students lack – particularly those less-likely students that all those presentations focused on.

If your parents didn’t go to college; if most of your fellow students don’t attend college; if your awareness is largely limited to nearby colleges – or those with big-time athletic programs – you probably don’t know where to start. What do you even search for?

We see this as a real problem, one that is potentially widening the college-attendance gap between students from more and less affluent backgrounds -- which is to say, those who know what to search for, and those who don’t.

We’re thus going to continue our college and career readiness work in school districts around the country, and we will soon expand our work to the higher ed community. Rather than rely on students’ ability to search for colleges, our “CCRG” pulls information directly from their schools’ information systems, and turns that information into insights about where they might direct their efforts, and how they might elevate their aspirations.

In fact, watch this space for an exciting announcement, coming soon from Spotlight. We’re feeling impatient about this issue, and we’re going to do more about it.