Equity & Diversity

High School Poverty Levels Tied to College-Going

By Sarah D. Sparks & Caralee J. Adams — October 22, 2013 3 min read
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When it comes to sending high school graduates to college and ensuring they succeed, a school’s poverty can be a bigger barrier than a diverse student body or a rural or inner-city locale.

In what is described as the first national study of its kind on college transitions and persistence, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found high-poverty high schools sent little more than half their class of 2012 graduates to college the following fall, compared with 70 percent of graduates from higher-income high schools.

The data are drawn from 3,000 public high schools in the clearinghouse’s StudentTracker program. The center provides research, reporting, and verification services to high schools and colleges that pay an annual fee for school-level data.

Digging into the data, the researchers found high-poverty schools followed very similar patterns of college enrollment and persistence at both two- and four-year colleges, regardless of whether they were located in urban or rural areas, or whether at least 40 percent of their students were members of minorities.

Only in higher-income schools was the racial makeup of the enrollment associated with lower college attendance, and even there, it was smaller than the gap between rich and poor.

Postsecondary Persistence

Graduates of higher-income high schools, regardless of whether they are located in cities or rural areas, are more likely to stay in college beyond the first year. Researchers said that the average income level of a school’s student body was also a better predictor of college persistence than its racial or ethnic makeup.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

“What we see here is there’s a much bigger difference in college-enrollment rates based on poverty level than race or geography,” said Douglas T. Shapiro, the executive director of the Herndon, Va.-based clearinghouse’s research center. “The big divider here is low-income schools,” Mr. Shapiro said.

The results support previous findings that students in high-poverty schools are more likely to choose two-year colleges than four-year ones, though the study did not analyze how colleges’ selectivity—or cost—played into students’ choices.

“The reality is poverty is a factor that affects achievement, and we cannot continue to ignore it,” Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said at a briefing on the report in Washington last week.

While teacher quality, curriculum, and pedagogy all have been shown to affect student learning, so have supports outside the school, such as whether children have had breakfast or parent support, he said.

“It’s not an issue of equality. What we need is equity. These kids need more,” Mr. Domenech said, including preschool support, wraparound programs, high school guidance, and information about colleges.

Transitions and Transfers

Mr. Shapiro was quick to acknowledge that, because the clearinghouse’s data were taken only from schools participating in his organization’s StudentTracker program, the study sample does not represent American students overall.

It gives a pretty detailed picture, though: More than 2.3 million students—about a quarter of all high school graduates in the 50 states and the District of Columbia between 2010 and 2012—were tracked from graduation well into their college careers. Moreover, the clearinghouse tracked students from college to college, in private and public institutions, and at schools both in and out of the state where they had graduated, providing what is seen as an unprecedented look at students’ persistence in college.

Students from low-income high schools did make up for a little of the initial college-enrollment gap over the course of the first two years after high school. In the winter and spring semesters after graduation, an additional 4 percent to 6 percent of students from wealthier schools enrolled in college than had in the fall immediately after high school. For students from low-income schools, later enrollments boosted college-going rates by 6 percent to 7 percent.

The pattern held the second year after high school, suggesting that a significant majority of graduates from all school types eventually made it to college.

The clearinghouse plans to provide annual updates, which Mr. Shapiro said could help fill in some of the blanks in transition and progression rates in the initial report. For example, the study counts all U.S. Census-labeled city, suburban, and town schools as “urban,” which may paper over differences between suburban and inner-city schools. It also does not break out rates of college enrollment or persistence for students in individual racial or ethnic groups. The schools in the group’s data program have received more detailed individual reports privately, however.

“The hope is that, over time, high schools and districts in the United States will be able to use the information to help catalyze thinking at the local level on how to improve their respective higher-education-readiness rates,” Mr. Shapiro said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as School Poverty Said to Hurt College Access

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