One summer weekend several years ago, I taught a small group of students from a low-income community how to write their personal statements for their college applications. Each student would be the first in their family to attend college, and their ability to tell their stories was going to be critical to their success. During the three-day retreat, we used a variety of creative and expository writing techniques to produce memorable and utterly authentic essays that I knew would stick in the minds of college admission officers. Returning home, I felt quite satisfied, perhaps a little smugly so, with a job well done.

One of the students, though, who wrote about his attempts to extricate himself from a neighborhood gang, did not share my sense of completion. When he returned to school, he asked his principal to gather the senior class in the auditorium. He proceeded to read his personal statement to them and said that if he could write that well, everyone else could do the same. He then led every senior, step by step, through the composition of their personal statements using the techniques he had learned in our weekend together. The principal was astonished at what he had witnessed. This young man had traveled the road from self to service, recognizing his personal inspiration was a call to duty to impact the rest of his classmates.

My colleagues and I began to see the real power in our work was not so much teaching writing but igniting positive peer influence. We learned the most influential person to a 17-year-old is another 17-year-old, and it struck us this might be a key to addressing systemic educational inequity at scale. Since that first workshop, PeerForward—a group that leverages the power of peer influence to motivate students to plan for, apply to, and succeed in higher education—has created and refined a peer-influence model that has directed more than 350,000 students over 20 years on the path to higher education.

Postsecondary Education Required

There is still so much more work to be done. Consider that in 1970, only 6 percent of the nation’s lowest-income students earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24. Today, it’s 11 percent (compared to 58 percent of high-income students that earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24), according to The Pell Institute’s 2018 Trends Report. Closing this persistent postsecondary education gap is ever more urgent. Since the 2008 recession, 99 percent of new jobs have gone to workers with at least some college education, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Many think the solution to equalizing the postsecondary gap and filling workforce needs is to bring complex and expensive interventions to high schools. Schools, nonprofits, the federal government, and philanthropists have mounted a variety of effective and thoughtful efforts in the past four decades. Yet the gap persists. We have heavily invested in the idea that the fix for American education is in standards, data transparency, accountability, teacher development, curricula, and technology—the supply side of the equation. That said, in these endeavors, the college equity field has all but ignored the demand side.

But what if a significant part of the solution has been walking in the halls and sitting in the classrooms of every high school all along—in the form of the students themselves? PeerForward demonstrates that students can be organized into teams to work on behalf of the rest of their classmates. The group’s mission is aimed at guiding more students to higher education, but we are learning the PeerForward method can be applied to other critical issues as well.

In April 2018, leading researchers, nonprofits, school district leaders, and student leaders gathered for the first-ever Youth Activation Summit at Facebook headquarters. As a learning community, we agreed on a simple definition of youth activation: Young people choose a relevant challenge, design a solution, and implement it in partnership with peers and adults.

Eleven school systems, including ones in Dallas, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York City, participated. District Action Teams—consisting of administrators, educators, and students—adopted the Youth Activation framework to identify key schoolwide needs and devise a student-driven plan for improvement. Among the issues were decreasing absenteeism, suppressing bullying, increasing kindness, and developing respect for women. These teams are currently driving these various goals in their schools this year.

The “peer effect” has long been recognized in research literature regarding the social aspects of schooling. In 1996, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University published results of the most extensive study ever conducted on the effects of nonclassroom experiences on academic achievement, concluding that overall academic achievement was decreasing due to a lack of engagement—and that engagement was driven by families and peer culture. Professor Steinberg perspicaciously warned that school reform efforts would fail if the factors driving student engagement were ignored in favor of focusing exclusively on standards, training, teacher accountability, and so forth.

Steinberg’s team looked at students with similar academic results, cross-referenced them to their peer “crowds,” and then tracked their GPAs over three years. The students who identified with peer crowds that valued achievement increased their grades, while the ones who identified with crowds that were hostile to achievement experienced diminished achievement indicators. More recently, scholars such as Robert Crosnoe have demonstrated the positive effect of peers from the perspectives of brain research, developmental psychology, role modeling, emotional support, and instrumental assistance, where students deliver instruction and guidance to each other.

Researcher Andrew Sokatch found the greatest predictor of whether an urban low-income student of color went to college was whether the student’s friends were planning to go and whether or not they wished for the student to attend as well, which increased their chances of enrolling in college by nearly 30 percentage points. This poses the question: How do we engineer our nation’s high schools to harness and maximize the peer effect for students who are most at risk of not succeeding?

Peer Effect for Success

PeerForward has designed a method to capture and deploy the peer effect. We work with partner schools to select four juniors, four seniors, and a school staff member who serves as an adviser to create a PeerForward team. A PeerForward professional coach—specially trained in youth development and campaign organizing techniques—works with each team at a transformational summer workshop and continues as teams conduct their campaigns through the school year. In the 2018–19 academic year, we have 96 teams working in 89 schools throughout the United States. These teams reach 89,000 students in the ninth to 12th grades. The campaigns are focused on key leading indicators that research has shown lead to eventual postsecondary enrollment and success:

  • FAFSA: Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), ideally early
  • Apply: Applying to at least three postsecondary institutions, which greatly improves the likelihood of eventual enrollment
  • Connect: Teaching ninth to 11th graders the connection between career aspirations and academic decisions

Peer leaders lead the work—setting goals, gathering data to measure campaign success, creating and organizing events, utilizing social media, and reporting back to school administrators on progress. Each year we are amazed at the creative techniques students employ, from awarding homecoming tickets to those who prove they have submitted a postsecondary application to negotiating with a local utility company to give a credit to all families showing proof they completed the FAFSA.

In the 2016–17 school year, a quasi-​experimental study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that our partner schools had a 26 percent higher rate of financial aid application completions than similar schools, unlocking $13 million more in grants and scholarships for those students. Deeper analysis by evaluators found the results could be extrapolated and applied broadly to schools that were excluded from the analysis due to the restrictive matching process. These studies affirm not only that our trained peer leaders are conducting successful campaigns to get their classmates to complete the FAFSA, but also that students can be—and are more than willing to be—trained to influence and organize their friends and classmates toward a consequential outcome.

Youth activation goes beyond student voice, where students are asked for their opinions, and beyond personalized learning, where students drive their own learning pathways. Youth activation involves teams of students actively assisting their classmates to achieve; and we now have data showing that it works. We are starting to see a small number of school districts organize themselves to deliberately leverage positive peer influence by designating a youth activation coach whose job it is to train, support, and partner with student-led teams to drive meaningful improvement. The youth activation movement is just beginning to coalesce, and I envision that in the coming years a youth activation coordinator will be considered a necessary position in every school system in the country.

Keith Frome is CEO and co-founder of PeerForward, an organization that leverages the power of peer influence to motivate students to plan for, apply to, and succeed in higher education.