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Early Awareness Program Characteristics and Evaluation


More than half of all pre-college early awareness and intervention initiatives are run by a college or university. The remainder are community- and school-based. Some are funded with federal dollars, others with state dollars and many through non-profit organizations. The most common goals of these programs are:

  • improve academic skills
  • increase high school retention
  • build self-esteem
  • provide role models
  • increase parental involvement
  • build college and career awareness
  • promote college attendance
  • increase financial aid awareness

Services Provided

Services are typically delivered on a college campus or at an elementary or secondary school, and may include:

  • academic mentoring and tutoring
  • study skill training
  • critical thinking skill training
  • cultural activities
  • test-taking preparation
  • academic and career counseling
  • college awareness and visits
  • clarification of the financial aid process

Five Types of Programs

  1. awareness programs that inform children from underrepresented groups about preparing for college

  2. intervention programs that work with children and parents on academic and life skills and provide information about college and career opportunities

  3. multi-service resource centers that provide college planning information, advice and (in some instances) scholarships to enhance postsecondary access for low-income students

  4. guaranteed tuition programs that promise funds for college tuition and books to at-risk children if certain academic standards are met upon graduation from high school

  5. last dollar scholarship and financial aid advising programs, which may also include early awareness efforts

Target Populations

The student populations most often targeted by early awareness/early intervention programs are low-income, minority and/or students who would be the first-generation in their family to attend college. Most programs focus on middle and high school students although some begin in grade school.

Financial Support

Representing more than half of all total funding, the federal government is the largest source of financial support for early intervention programs although such funding is primarily for the federal TRIO and GEAR-UP programs. Financial support from state governments, non-profit organizations and colleges and universities make up the remainder. Most programs receive financial support from more than one source.

Evaluation of Early Awareness Programs

Ninety-four percent of early intervention programs report that they conduct program evaluations, according to the National Survey of Outreach Programs. About three-fourths report that they track program completion, 64 percent report that they track high school graduation and 29 percent track graduation from college. In their review of relevant literature, Schultz & Mueller of Wilder Research (2006) provided information on the following features associated with effective programs.

  • Academic preparation: Ensuring access to a college preparatory curriculum appears to be a critical component for helping students gain access to a college education. Rigorous mathematics courses during high school remain an important predictor of successful college completion (Adelman, 1999; Adelman, 2006).

  • Peer support and mentoring: Social support appears to influence college decisions (Perna, 2000), and mentors play important roles for helping underrepresented students navigate obstacles (Levine & Nidiffer, 1996).

  • Intervene before high school and provide long-term support: Early awareness programs can help facilitate a student's high school curricular plans by ensuring preparation for rigorous classes prior to ninth grade (Perna, 2002). Some studies have shown that benefits for students are greater the longer they participate in a program (Gandara & Bial, 2001).

  • Help students with college admissions and financial aid applications: Programs with the strongest evidence for effectiveness included this type of support (Wilder Research, 2006).

  • Systemic reform: An example of system-level change is the alignment of high school requirements with college entry requirements, because this appears to help underrepresented students gain access and succeed in college (Martinez & Klopott, 2005).

However, rigorous evaluation of programs to improve postsecondary education enrollment and success is limited (Schultz & Mueller, 2006). Therefore, the evidence of effectiveness is limited, and there are things we do not know about early intervention programs:

  • Few studies include control groups, so it is difficult to attribute the impact to the program.

  • Selection criteria for program participation is usually not reported, so little is known about which students are most likely to benefit.

  • Little is known about the cost-effectiveness of most programs, and it is often unclear which program features are most effective.

  • Studies often lack clear or consistent measurable outcomes.


Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in a toolbox: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor's degree attainment. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Research and Improvement.

Adelman, C. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Gandara, P., & Bial, D. (2001). Paving the way to postsecondary education: K-12 interventions for underrepresented youth. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Levine, A., & Nidiffer, J. (1996). Beating the odds: How the poor get to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Martinez, M., & Klopott, S. (2005). The link between high school reform and college access and success for low-income and minority youth. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Policy Forum and Pathways to College Network.

Perna, L.W. (2000). Promoting college enrollment through early intervention. ERIC Review: Early Intervention: Expanding access to higher education, 8, (1), 4-9.

Perna, L.W. (2002). Pre-college outreach programs: Characteristics of programs serving historically underrepresented groups of students. Journal of College Student Development, 43, (1), 64-83.

Schultz, J.L., & Mueller, D. (2006). Effectiveness of programs to improve postsecondary education enrollment and success of underrepresented youth: A literature review. St. Paul, MN: Wilder Research.

College Access Matters: The Opportunity for College Access Programs in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Inc.

Short-term Early College Awareness: Key Strategies for Successful Early Intervention and Early College Awareness Programs. Alexandria, VA: National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Swail, W.S. & Perna, L. W. (2002). Pre-College Outreach Programs, A National Perspective. Increasing Access to College: Extending Possibilities for All Students, Chp 1. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Swail, W.S. (2000). Preparing America's Disadvantaged for College: Programs That Increase College Opportunity. Understanding the College Choice of Disadvantaged Students, v27 n3 p85-101 Fall 2000. San Francisco: New Directions for Institutional Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.