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Sample results from the College Considerator prototype
Sample results from the College Considerator prototype

Does it pay to go to college? That largely depends on the student, said Robert Shireman, executive director of California Competes, a nonprofit focused on higher education. Students should ask themselves tough questions, he said. You’re not the average student. You’re you. What do you want from college? Do you have the academic skills and motivation to achieve your goals?

With funding from the Lumina Foundation (which also funds The Hechinger Report), California Competes has proposed a “College Considerator” to help students think through these kinds of questions. Still in the alpha prototype version, the online tool focuses on the individual. It asks students about the rigor of their high school courses, their grades and their ACT or SAT scores, plus their approach to schoolwork, enjoyment of school and excitement about college.

The prototype made its debut last year at a conference on college affordability at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. California Competes is hoping to find a partner with the expertise to develop it, produce a finished version and release it. If that happens, the Considerator could be a boon to students puzzled about their college choices.

Other questions deal with how many hours students intend to work at a paid job, whether they’ll enroll full time or part time and whether they’ll live on campus or off campus with nonstudents. All these factors affect the likelihood that they will complete a degree. They will also be asked about their reasons for going to college. For example, if you knew you wouldn’t get a better job after graduation, would college still be worth it?

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If the Considerator becomes a reality, Shireman hopes that it will encourage students to make choices that will lead to college success. Of course, there is also the possibility that the Considerator could discourage weak students from going at all. A C student with below-average test scores and a so-so “academic appetite” would see she’s unlikely to complete a degree.

29 percent of dropouts have college debt

“It’s a tough issue,” Shireman said. “But it’s better to tell someone that, given their high school record, they’ll have to change the way they approach school” or find “a path that fits their skills and needs.”

Ultimately, most students will need a human advisor to help them understand their options, he said. High school counselors are overworked, but tools like the Considerator, and nonprofits like the College Advising Corps, which has stepped in to help first-generation students, can provide support.

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Clearly, that support is needed. The college graduation gap between high- and low-income groups is widening, concludes a Pell Institute report. Only 9 percent of students from lower-income families earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24 in 2013, compared to 77 percent from high-income families.

“Students with low odds of earning a bachelor’s degree can go to community college to earn a certificate.”

College readiness is the key, said James Rosenbaum, a Northwestern University professor of education and social policy. Only one-third of low-scoring students who enroll in a four-year college or university complete a bachelor’s degree in eight years, according to his coauthored new study, The New Forgotten Half and Research Directions to Support Them. For example, less than half of all students at the second-tier California State University graduate in six years, and male students at second-tier universities may see little return on their investment, warns another study that adjusted its numbers for the probability of delayed graduation or no graduation at all.

College doesn’t pay for dropouts, said Rosenbaum. Workers with “some college” but no certificate or degree earn no more than high school graduates and they’re no more likely to be employed. Nationwide, 29 percent of dropouts have college debt. Rosenbaum’s report, released in January, says the average debt is $15,664 for non-completers who’ve borrowed.

Along with counseling and advising — from a human — an online tool could help students make wiser choices, said Rosenbaum. Many 12th-graders are “very, very confused,” he added. They think a four-year degree is the only path to a decent job. “That’s not true.” One-year certificates in fields such as computer networking, bookkeeping and surgical assisting lead to jobs that pay well, his research has found. They require “solid eighth-grade skills, especially in math,” but not college-level skills.

Related: It takes a community: Obama’s free college plan will need a broad coalition to become a reality

“Students with low odds of earning a bachelor’s degree can go to community college to earn a certificate, get a quick payoff, then pursue an academic degree when they’re ready,” said Rosenbaum. Or they could try for a bachelor’s, but have a back-up plan. “Optimism is fine. Alternatives are crucial.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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