Can College Visits Improve College Aspirations?

Helping students set foot on campus may expand their perspective.

Posted Feb 11, 2019

For students who have parents that have gone to college or who grow up around college campuses, it is likely a given they will at least apply to college and very likely attend. However, for students who come from rural areas or places far away from a university campus there may be less of an expectation to attend college, or even a barrier due to unfamiliarity.

Getting more students onto college campuses has become an important policy concern, especially due to the economic benefits of attending college and the need to improve the social mobility of disadvantaged students. However, maybe first-generation students lack the “cultural capital” or cultural knowledge and social assets they need to effectively navigate the college application and attendance process. Perhaps not understanding what it is actually like to be on a college campus presents a nontrivial psychological barrier to students seeing themselves on campus in the future.

So what happens when you expose underrepresented students to college visits and allow them to set foot on and experience campus? That’s exactly what researchers Elise Swanson, Katherine Kopotic, Gema Zamarro, Jonathan N. Mills, Jay P. Greene, and Gary Ritter did in a recent working paper titled “An Evaluation of the Educational Impact of College Campus Visits: A Randomized Experiment.”

The researchers recruited 885 students across 15 schools and randomized students within schools to either a treatment or control condition. The control group got an information packet about college, whereas the treatment condition got an information packet and visited a flagship university three times during the 8th grade.

These visits included a variety of on-campus activities. In brief, the first visit included a college information session and campus tour, the second visit focused on exposing students to different departments and degree paths available, and the third visit aimed to foster a sense of campus spirit by having students attend a university baseball game or compete in an on-campus scavenger hunt. More detail on the full intervention can be found in the paper.

The students who were exposed to the three campus visits had more knowledge about college, demonstrated higher levels of effort when completing a survey, were more likely to talk to school personnel about college, and were more likely to enroll in advanced math and science/social science courses in the 9th grade compared to the control group. However, among other findings, the researchers saw “no substantial impact of the intervention on students’ postsecondary plans; we find a small decrease in students’ likelihood of intending to attend technical school after high school, but no change in students’ intentions of attending four or two year university, entering the military, or working.”

The authors conclude by noting that “In order to close opportunity gaps in postsecondary enrollment and degree completion, researchers should find scalable interventions that can be implemented with fidelity across a variety of contexts. In this study, we explore the ability of a relatively low-cost intervention—three field trips to a local public university—to impact student attitudes and behaviors towards college. Both school districts interested in promoting college access for their students and universities interested in increasing their socioeconomic diversity or student population overall could easily adopt the approach we lay out in this intervention.”

Lead author Elise Swanson notes that the research team is currently working with another group of students and will follow all these students through high school into college to analyze the impact on long-term outcomes.


Swanson, E., Kopotic, K., Zamarro, G., Mills, J. N., Greene, J. P., & Ritter, G. (2019). An Evaluation of the Educational Impact of College Campus Visits: A Randomized Experiment. EDRE Working Paper 2019-02.