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Academic Ability Top Predictor in College Decisions

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Academic achievement plays a stronger role than family income in determining where students who take the SAT will go to college, a national survey has found.

Nearly three-quarters of low-income students who had taken the Scholastic Assessment Test planned to attend a public or private four-year college, according to the poll commissioned by the College Board and released at its national conference here last week.

The survey found that an even higher percentage--88 percent--of low-income students who took the SAT and scored above average on it were headed to a four-year college.

The study also found that family income was not a major factor in determining whether students attend community colleges.

The percentage of students from all income levels with high SAT scores who planned to enroll in a community college--4 percent--was exactly the same as that of low-income students with similar scores on the widely used college-entrance exam.

Factors in College Choice

"It's encouraging data," said Jacqueline King, the assistant director for policy analysis at the College Board's Washington office, who presented the poll results at the conference.

Although her office has just begun to analyze the survey data, she said it was heartening that academic ability seemed to override income restrictions in college decisionmaking.

The June 1995 telephone poll asked 1,000 high school seniors who had taken the SAT about their college-decisionmaking process. Included in the survey were questions about high school coursework, counseling, financial-aid information, and family income level.

The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, commissioned the survey to learn more about the factors that influence college attendance.

The poll was conducted by the George H. Gallup International Institute, a nonprofit research and education survey organization in Princeton, N.J.

The data will be merged with the information students currently provide in the SAT's Student Descriptive Questionnaire, Ms. King said.

Some Discouraging Results

Although the survey contained good news about the college choices of low-income students, it also revealed some discouraging results about the effect of low family incomes on those same students' knowledge about financial aid.

Nearly one-third of low-income students who scored below average on the SAT said they would either receive no financial aid or did not know what kind of financial aid they would receive.

"There's still that perception that [all] financial aid is merit-based," said Ms. King.

Even students from the low-income group who scored well on the exam appeared to be ill-informed about financial aid.

Fifteen percent of that group said they would receive no aid or did not have information about aid, and 27 percent said financial aid would cover less than half their college costs.

Role of Counselors

The survey yielded positive results about the role of high school guidance counselors, who often face questions about their effectiveness.

Eighty-nine percent of the students surveyed said they had met with a counselor to discuss future plans at least two or three times during their junior or senior years. And 51 percent of low-income students named a guidance counselor as a person who was "very helpful" in guiding future decisions.

That finding could be especially significant for some urban high schools, where guidance counseling, as opposed to counseling for discipline, "is being seen as something that is expendable," Ms. King said.

In addition, the survey showed that guidance counselors recommended four-year colleges as often for low-income students as for high-income ones.

That finding, Ms. King said, refutes a myth that counselors steer low-income students away from college. "This is going to be good for guidance counselors who need to take a little ammunition back to their principals."

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