AEFP 46th Annual Conference

Promoting Equity and Opportunity Through Education Policy Research

Held Virtually from March 17-19, 2021

Community-Engaged College Access: Expanding the College Access Service Delivery Model to Increase Post-Secondary Participation

Carol Cutler White, Mississippi State University,

Background. Policymakers and scholars view access to higher education as an important mechanism for individual social and economic mobility and for positive societal change. The federal government and states invest billions of dollars annually to increase college access and participation, yet the immediate college enrollment rates for male and female students in 2017 were not measurably different from the corresponding rates in 2000 (NCES, 2019). One potential reason federal and state investments may not improve outcomes is the long-standing model of providing college access services centered in high schools in the form of school counselors or college access practitioners (i.e., College Advising Corps, GEAR UP, TRIO, etc.). This model may unintentionally advantage those with high social capital and may disadvantage marginalized, low income, and disconnected communities. Further, the choice to attend college is largely an economic decision. Farah and Hook found low socio-economic status predisposes individuals to high discounting financial behaviors, and the inability to see beyond the short-term or “present-mindedness” (Farah & Hook, 2017). Other scholars view the discounting behaviors of the poor through a psychologic perspective and propose an alternative explanation; trust (Jachimowicz, Chafik, Munrat, Prabhu, & Weber, 2017). The authors argue trust is essential to the cognitive process required to choose a delayed outcome over an immediate reward, and that community trust buffers the impact of the present-mindedness of poverty and the poor make less myopic intertemporal decisions (Jachimowicz et al., 2017). This study used participatory research to explore model building for community-engaged college access at trusted locations to reach disconnected and marginalized communities with essential college information.
Research design. The study utilized two participatory research methods to explore community perceptions of barriers to college information and to identify trusted community locations; photovoice and Q methodology. As a participatory research method, photovoice is both a visual and verbal approach useful for capturing the individual and group reality related to a topic of concern. Photovoice asks a group of individuals to take part in a delineated process to (1) enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, (2) promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussions of photographs, and to (3) reach policy makers (Wang & Burris, 1997). Photovoice research was carried out by six high school students, four college students, and four community parents to determine barriers to gaining college information outside of the high school environment and to identify trusted locations to distribute college information in the community. Photovoice provided data (in the form of photos) for the second participatory method, Q. Q methodology involves technique (sorting) and method (factor analysis) enabling the systematic study of behavioral preferences and providing a glimpse into mental models across and between participants (Stephenson, 1953). This is accomplished through a sorting activity (Q sort) resulting in a by-person factor analysis creating clusters of individuals who share similar opinions (McKeown & Thomas, 2013; Watts & Stenner, 2012).
Findings. Photovoice participants documented barriers to accessing college information outside of the high school environment. Participants identified barriers including a lack of transportation, money, time, and knowing someone who understands the college and financial aid application processes. Photovoice research also documented trusted locations across the city resulting in 26 photos of locations considered to be trusted as potential community-engaged college access sites. A pilot Q sort of the 26 locations identified two factors (or two groups with high consensus on location). Group 1 had agreement on 11 trusted locations and Group 2 had agreement on five trusted locations for community-engaged college access. A post-Q sort questionnaire revealed preference toward trusted locations with a priority on safety, security, easily accessible, and evening and weekend hours of operation. A community-wide Q sort is scheduled for late January 2020 where data will be gathered and analyzed for reporting at AEFP 2020.
Implications for policy and practice. This participatory research study has potential to establish an expanded model of college access service delivery. The model may influence federal investments and policy as well as expectations of college access service delivery. Additionally, states may consider community-engaged college access as a policy strategy to improve postsecondary participation. The research could also influence foundation and non-profit investments in college access, as continued investment in the traditional high school centric model may never achieve the intended goal of improved participation in postsecondary education. Development of the community-engaged college access model is the first step in expanded service delivery to disconnected and marginalized communities. The next step would be rigorous evaluation of outcomes.


Thanks for stopping by! This research is in its infancy, and the poster results are far from completed. If this topic is of interest to you, I'm looking for co-researchers to assist in building and researching the community-based college access model. "Some" grant funding for six years is currently available. Please contact me at if you are interested!

Hi Carol, I think this work is really interesting and important- I really appreciate how you're starting with the perspective of high school and college students as well as community members. I wonder if it would possible, as you build out this model, to talk with folks at some of the locations to see what they do intentionally to try to build that trust. I'm thinking particularly of schools/teachers that may have a lot of knowledge about the college process, but potentially not the same connections within the community (I'm approaching this from my experience teaching in the region and there was a lot of staff turnover and some distrust of schools). I think given your model of the importance of community trust it would be interesting to see how that can be built. Thanks- I look forward to seeing your work continue!

It'd be fascinating to know what college administrators (admissions/recruiting folks) think of this. Do they know that they're not reaching people through the most trusted channels? If not, why not? If so, why don't they reach out through these locations? Is it not cost effective?

Thanks for sharing this work! I find this method so cool! I'm wondering how y'all selected the 10 photographs to take for the participants to sort. One could imagine there are several ways this could be done which could influence the options or choice set available to individuals. Looking forward to hearing more about this work! Thanks again and let me know if I can be helpful in the future!

Thanks for your contribution to my research! Your identification of the need to talk with folks about trust is the next step in the research plan. I'm working with our statewide college access organization (Woodward Hines Education Foundation, Americorps state programs, and the Mayor's office. I have funding to pilot test the model in three communities and plan to have exit surveys of folks who come to the community-based sites for college application and FAFSA assistance. If you have other thoughts, I'd welcome your feedback! My email is

Thanks for asking some interesting and hard questions! The standard channel of school-based college outreach works for most people, but not necessarily for all. The high school is the most trusted location for college admissions reps. My goal is to experiment with the community-engaged model to reach those who may not be able (or willing) to engage with the high school for various reasons. I don't believe it would be cost effective at this point in time for admissions reps to change their strategy of high school recruitment, but if the community-engaged model works, it may change the numbers! Thanks for your comments. If you think of anything else, please feel free to email me at

The photovoice process enabled consensus on locations. Each photovoice co-researcher was assigned to take 10 photos of trusted places. Greenville MS is not a large city, so the number of trusted places is limited. As such, there were multiple photos of the same location in many cases. The "best" quality photo was selected to represent the trusted location in the Q sort. A total of 26 places/photos were selected for the Q sort research. Thanks for your comments! If you think of anything else, please feel free to email me at

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