University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Making college accessible, one field trip at a time

In The View from the OEP on March 6, 2019 at 11:55 am


In the upcoming months, many high school seniors around the country will commit to attending a college or university. According to data from the Arkansas Department of Education, about 40-50% of high school graduates in Arkansas enroll in an in-state 2- or 4- year college. As students look forward to this important milestone, we thought it was a good time to take a step back to think about all of the decisions students have to make to be in a place where they’re deciding which college to attend. In particular, we want to focus on when and how students first start to get a realistic picture of what it is like to be a college student, and how those early experiences relate to students’ preparation for college.

Over the past two years, we at the OEP have been working with junior high schools and middle schools in the area to give eighth grade students information about college and to provide opportunities to visit the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville campus three times to learn more about the college experience. On these visits, students toured campus, participated in a college-readiness workshop, worked with academic departments, toured a dorm, and participated in an athletic event. (Oh, and of course they were able to experience the joys of a campus dining hall). These visits complement what schools are already doing to prepare students for their futures, such as offering career readiness courses, encouraging students to job shadow a professional in an interesting field, or making connections between coursework and potential careers.

Why did we focus on a campus experience, over and above providing information about college? The college-going process is complex, opaque, and confusing. Colleges can be difficult places to navigate, from making new friends, to adjusting to new academic expectations, to finding your way around campus. By creating an opportunity for students to navigate this type of environment and to meet successful students with similar backgrounds, we hope to make college seem less intimidating and more achievable.

Why did we focus on eighth grade? We knew we wanted to focus on early exposure to college, because research suggests many students get off a “college-preparatory” track in middle school. At the same time, students in the eighth grade are about to enroll in their first high school courses and to start building a high school GPA—in other words, they’re close enough to college for the message to resonate.

Of course, since we’re always interested in measuring the different ways schools are helping students, we had to evaluate these visits. So, within each of our partner schools, we randomized participating students to one of two groups. One group received an informational packet detailing postsecondary options in the state, discussing specific actions to take throughout high school to prepare for college, and educational requirements for different types of careers. The other group received the same packet of information and participated in the three campus visits. Then, we compared students’ responses to a survey asking about their attitudes towards and knowledge about college, as well as their course-taking decisions in ninth grade. You can read the full working paper here, but here are our main takeaways:

  1. Students who participate in the visits know more about college than students who just read the information on their own—students know more about the cost of college, what characteristics colleges look for in applicants, and how to earn college credit in high school, among other topics, if they have an experience to go along with the information.
  2. Students who participate in the visits have more conversations with school personnel about college than students who just receive printed information—in these conversations, students are talking about their college readiness, ACT scores they’ll need for their dream school, and other college-related topics.
  3. Students who participate in the visits are more academically diligent than students who just receive information—students who get a taste of the demands of college are more likely to fully complete a survey task.
  4. Students who participate in the visits are more likely to enroll in advanced math, science, and social science courses in ninth grade—students who participate in the visits are more likely to take advanced Geometry, pre-AP Biology, and pre-AP Civics in ninth grade, for example, than students who just receive printed information about college.
  5. Students who participate in the visits are less likely to want to go to a technical school after high school—as students gain a more realistic picture of the demands and benefits of a postsecondary education, they may be less likely to want a technical certificate and instead be more interested in other paths post-high school.

We’ve still got a lot of questions about how we can encourage students to prepare for college, particularly as more and more jobs require some sort of postsecondary training and college graduation rates stay flat. But it seems like providing field trips to a college campus is one strategy schools can pursue to help students think about all of their options for the future. If your school is interested in organizing a campus field trip (for any grade!), please reach out to us at the OEP! We would love to help you organize a fun, informational visit for your students that affirms their potential to succeed in any path they choose.


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