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Federal Talent Search Program

This page provides a brief account of the Federal Talent Search program, a government program that focuses on encouraging and helping disadvantaged students to enter higher education. Two of our applicants - Double Discovery Center and Harlem Center for Education - feature Talent Search programs, and in both cases we know little about these programs other than the fact that they are under the heading of the federal program. The official website of the federal program is here.

Program components

Federally funded Talent Search programs fall under a relatively broad mandate, with many possible uses for the funding. The Talent Search website lists the following possible activities:
  • Academic, financial, career, or personal counseling including advice on entry or re-entry to secondary or postsecondary programs
  • Career exploration and aptitude assessment
  • Tutorial services
  • Information on postsecondary education
  • Exposure to college campuses
  • Information on student financial assistance
  • Assistance in completing college admissions and financial aid applications
  • Assistance in preparing for college entrance exams
  • Mentoring programs
  • Special activities for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders
  • Workshops for the families of participants
Although some of these services involve academic support, the focus of the program is not primarily on teaching particular skills and subjects, but rather on helping students who are already college-ready or nearly college-ready to become more likely to enter college. (This statement is based on the stated purpose of the program1 as well as on the fact that most of the activities above are relatively low-intensity interventions, and most focus on the college admissions process rather than academics.)

Preliminary empirical evidence: 2000 Department of Education report

The Department of Education funded an evaluation of the Talent Search program in Florida, Texas, and Indiana, performed by Mathematica Policy Research. The report, linked here, gives some preliminary reason to be optimistic about the effectiveness of the federal program. Mathematica compared students who had enrolled in Talent Search with students who had not enrolled, but who were "matched" to enrolled students based on school district they attend, persistence to the same year in high school, and observable characteristics including gender, academic performance, and economic status (Pgs 9-10). Mathematica found that participants in all three states were significantly more likely to apply for financial aid and enroll in college than non-participants (Pgs xviii-xix). However, this result does not by itself mean that the program was effective: it's possible that the observed difference reflected pre-existing differences between participants and non-participants (beyond those differences that Mathematica was able to observe and control for). Mathematica attempted to assess the impact of possible "unobservable" differences between participants and non-participants, by examining how the two differed on "non-targeted outcomes" such as high-school graduation rates and SAT scores. Researchers found that participants were significantly more likely than non-participants to graduate high-school (in Texas, Attachment B-1 Pg 32) and significantly more likely to score higher on the SATs (and other standardized tests) in Florida (Attachment B-1 Pg 82). (High-school completion data was not available in Indiana's administrative records (Pg 69). Mathematica found that participants outperformed non-participants by a greater margin on "targeted" outcomes (applying for financial aid; enrolling in college) than on "non-targeted outcomes" (high school graduation rates, SAT scores) and the effect on applicants for financial aid and postsecondary enrollment persisted even among high school graduates only (Pg 100) From this, they concluded with tentative optimism that the Talent Search program had had some of its intended effect.


We are inclined to agree with the preliminary, tentative conclusion of the Mathematica study. It is intuitively plausible to us that an intervention such as Talent Search could make students more likely to enroll in college by giving them relatively straightforward help on relatively simple issues such as applying for financial aid; by doing so, they may be using resources more efficiently than they would be by attempting to address deeper-rooted inequities such as academic aptitude and performance. We also find the empirical study above somewhat encouraging, although it is also clear that this study did not truly "isolate" the effects of the program (since the participants and non-participants it compared appeared to differ in other aspects as well). We do not have enough confidence in this program to recommend an organization simply because it participates, but we find it an encouraging model that is worth watching.
  • 1., accessed 4/28/10.