College & Workforce Readiness

High School Rigor Narrows College-Success Gap

By Catherine Gewertz — October 08, 2010 4 min read
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Students from some racial- and ethnic-minority groups and those from low-income families enroll in college and succeed there at lower rates than their white, wealthier peers. But a new study suggests that if teenagers are adequately prepared for college during high school, those gaps close substantially.

The “Mind the Gaps” study, by ACT, draws on the Iowa City, Iowa-based testmaker’s earlier research showing that taking a strong core curriculum in high school and meeting benchmark scores in all four subjects of the ACT college-entrance exam enhance students’ chances of enrolling in college, persisting there for a second year, earning good grades, and obtaining a two- or four-year degree.

The ACT defines a college-ready curriculum as four years of English, and at least three each of mathematics, science, and social studies. The study found that “college-ready” scores on the ACT exam correlate with earning good grades in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses. Fewer than one-quarter of students currently meet those benchmarks in all four subject areas of the exam, however. (“Rate of Minorities Taking ACT Continues to Rise,” Aug. 25, 2010.)

Discussing the report at an Oct. 6 presentation, Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the president of the ACT’s education division, said that poor preparation for postsecondary education is a key reason that many students who aspire to college don’t do well once they enroll, or don’t enroll at all. This is particularly true, she noted, for students from low-income families and for what ACT defined as “underrepresented minority students”—African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. But “when kids are prepared for college,” she said, “college achievement gaps narrow in remarkable ways.”

Ms. Schmeiser’s comments, focused on building a stronger high school experience for disadvantaged students, came one day after the White House Summit on Community Colleges, which explored how two-year colleges could help more students obtain associate’s degrees, a key goal of President Barack Obama’s administration. (“White House Summit Touches on K-12, College Link,” this issue.)

While there is much to be done at the higher-education level to improve college outcomes, the ACT study highlights powerful steps that can be taken at the high school level, Ms. Schmeiser said.

“Ensuring kids are prepared for college by the time they leave high school is the single most important thing we can do to improve college-completion rates,” she said.

Joining ACT officials in presenting the report, Carmel Martin, a top aide to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said the study “shines a light” on an issue that “is core to our education agenda.” If the country is to reach President Obama’s goal of reclaiming U.S. leadership in college-completion rates, she said, it must work to “strengthen the entire system” of education from “cradle to career.”

Closing Opportunity Gaps

For their report, ACT researchers examined whether college readiness in high school affected the racial and socioeconomic gaps in college enrollment, persistence, performance, and completion. They found that even with college-readiness levels two to four times higher among white and wealthier students than among their less advantaged peers, gaps in college going and college success were narrowed substantially by building a broader base of college readiness among high school students.

They compared all students in the graduating class of 2007 who took the ACT with the much-smaller group that met the college-ready benchmarks in all four areas of the exam. They also compared those who had taken the ACT-recommended core curriculum with those who had not. They found that reaching those testing benchmarks and taking the core curriculum narrowed gaps significantly.

Among all ACT-takers, for instance, researchers found a 14-percentage-point gap between white students and underrepresented racial minority students in the rate at which they enrolled in college within a year of graduation. But among those who met college-readiness benchmarks in all four subjects, the gap was only 6 points.

Similarly, among all ACT-takers, the white-minority gap in the rate at which students re-enrolled for a second year of college was 6 percentage points, but it was only 1 point among those who met all four college-ready benchmarks on the ACT.

Using the same comparison to examine the portion of students who earned a 3.0 grade point average in their first year of college, researchers found a gap of 18 percentage points between all white students who had taken the ACT and the underrepresented minority students. But among those who met all four benchmarks, the gap was only 6 points.

Similar gap-closing effects were found for college completion rates at two-year and four-year institutions.

The poverty effect also was reduced by college readiness, the researchers found. Among all students who took the ACT, the gap in the rate at which wealthier students and those from low-income families enrolled in college within a year was 24 percentage points, but among those who met all four of the ACT benchmarks it was only 8 points.

Examining that effect for re-enrollment in a second year of college, the gap between all students and lower-income students was 13 percentage points, but among those who were college-ready it was 8 points. Similar effects were found in students’ likelihood of earning a 3.0 grade point average, and of completing college.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as For High-Risk Groups, Success Gap in College Hinges on Readiness


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