College Awareness Ad Campaign Takes its Message Directly to Kids

Published May 1, 2008

According to a report released in March by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, only half the students in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system who have aspired to attend four-year colleges since 2004 have done what it takes to get there, largely because they haven’t known how to navigate the search and application processes.

They’re not alone. Nationwide, according to the people behind a new campaign to attack the problem by appealing directly to students, poor kids struggle to get to college.

Major Obstacles

Researchers from the consortium–a University of Chicago-based group put together in 1990 to study CPS–found several major obstacles keeping low-income, often would-be first-generation college students from attending four-year colleges, especially ones matching many students’ relatively high qualifications.

Two of the main difficulties, according to the report, are that many high schools don’t have “strong college climates”–they don’t push students to attend college–and kids can’t navigate the complicated Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that is needed to obtain often essential financial assistance.

In the end, “if the most highly qualified students do not attend colleges that demand high qualifications, then their hard work has not paid off,” the authors wrote. “Making hard work worthwhile must be a central goal if CPS is going to ask all students to work hard and value their course performance and achievement.”

Launching Campaigns

KnowHow2GO–a new effort spearheaded by the nonprofit Lumina Foundation (a higher-education advocacy group based in Indianapolis), the Ad Council, and the American Council on Education (ACE)–is designed to help low-income students overcome the problems they face getting to college, understand the importance of higher education, and navigate the application process.

Because one of the main obstacles for low-income students is that their parents and schools pay too little attention to college, the campaign appeals directly to those kids.

“Students do not know the steps necessary to go to college,” explained Susan Conner, Lumina’s executive vice president of impact strategy. KnowHow2GO is “a public service advertising campaign” intended to encourage them to find out what those steps are and then take them.

KnowHow2GO is divided into three campaigns, Conner said: Air, ground, and “new media.” The first includes television and radio ads telling kids college can be in their future and they need to find adults who can help them get there.

The ground campaign works with numerous organizations ranging from the National Collegiate Access Network (NCAN) to Boys and Girls Clubs to help students clear hurdles such as FAFSA.

New media efforts include a KnowHow2GO presence on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Mixed Results

KnowHow2GO has various arrangements in 15 states and two regions. In five states, including Illinois and Washington, as well as the Los Angeles Basin and the area surrounding Tampa, Florida, KnowHow2GO is being run with grants from Lumina. In 10 states–including Connecticut, which launched its campaign in January 2008–the campaigns are being run with technical assistance, but not financial support, from Lumina.

Since the program was launched just last year, in January 2007, it is probably too early to tell how effective it will be in getting low-income kids to attend college when they otherwise would not have gone or would have attended schools below their qualifications. The evidence so far is mixed at best.

Tracy Dell’Angela, senior manager of outreach and publications at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said no one who worked on her organization’s report had heard of KnowHow2GO, even though the program is operating in Chicago.

Conner, however, said an early assessment, not available at press time, suggests at least the air campaign is starting to work: The results, she said, showed “significant and promising increases in students who know about the campaign and are taking steps to go to college.”

Regardless of progress to date, both KnowHow2GO’s founders and researchers in Chicago know such efforts have a long way to go.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

“From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College,” by Melissa Roderick, Jenny Nagaoka, Vanessa Coca, and Eliza Moeller; with Karen Roddie, Jamiliyah Gilliam, and Desmond Patton, Consortium on Chicago School Research, March 2008: