The national agenda around higher education attainment has led to renewed focus on college readiness, access, and success. Citing the social and economic benefits of a postsecondary credential, many federal and state policymakers, educational policy and advocacy groups, and philanthropic organizations have urged shifts in policy and practice to expand college opportunity.
A large aspect of this invigorated discourse pertains to ensuring college access for members of groups that historically have been underserved, meaning they haven’t received enough resources to make the transition to higher education smoothly. This emphasis on equity is appropriate and necessary, given the persistent racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in college opportunities. And, although preparing students for college has largely been viewed as the responsibility of the K-12 educational system, higher education institutions also have a significant role to play in current efforts to increase college readiness among historically underserved students.
Overall college enrollment has increased for all students over the past several decades, but inequities have in some ways increased for African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. These gaps are driven in large part by stratified patterns of college access. Low-income young people, first-generation college attendees, and many students from racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to enroll in community colleges, for-profit higher education institutions, and less-selective four-year institutions than their higher-income and white counterparts. Exacerbating the differences are the inequitable outcomes that these underserved students experience because of the postsecondary path they choose.
Redressing inequities in postsecondary access and success necessitates that all students have an equal opportunity to become “college ready.” This is not the case currently, as evidenced by the fact that low-income and minority students are less likely to complete a college-preparatory curriculum during high school and less likely to enroll in four-year institutions after high school. They are also more likely to require remedial coursework after enrolling in college.
To date, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on facilitating collaboration between K-12 and higher education to better align college-prep coursework in high schools with the expectations of postsecondary institutions and faculty. This work is vitally important, as it aims to bring the two education systems into alignment and, hopefully, ease students’ transition from high school into higher education. However, these steps are not sufficient to ensure equitable opportunity—particularly for underserved students.
Countless research studies on college choice have revealed that college readiness entails more than just being academically prepared. Certainly, academic preparation as measured by success in college-prep coursework and high school achievement levels affects a student’s chance of succeeding in college. But other factors such as educational aspirations, early access to information about postsecondary options, perceptions of college costs and the availability of financial aid, and support during the difficult-to-navigate college-application and financial-aid processes are also key factors that shape students’ enrollment decisions. For historically underserved students, these other components of college readiness shape, and far too often constrain, their choices.
Recent research on the phenomenon of “under-matching” underscores this point. Under-matching occurs when high-achieving low-income and minority students enroll in less-selective postsecondary institutions or forgo higher education altogether, despite being academically qualified to attend more-selective four-year colleges.
While the causes and consequences of under-matching remain unclear, the evidence suggests that students who choose less-challenging colleges are less aware of the range of postsecondary options available to them and less likely to take the steps necessary to enroll in highly selective institutions (e.g., taking college-entrance exams, meeting with a high school guidance counselor). These students also tend to overestimate out-of-pocket college costs and underestimate their eligibility for financial aid. All of these factors likely further the under-matching problem and contribute to inequitable patterns of college enrollment.
The good news is that there are concrete steps that postsecondary institutions can take to combat this problem. These relatively simple, low-cost steps include sharing information about the admissions and financial-aid processes via strategically timed mailings and granting automatic application-fee waivers. The effectiveness of these interventions has been empirically demonstrated: Low-income, high-achieving students who received mailings from the Expanding College Opportunity Project, an effort involving numerous higher education institutions and players, were significantly more likely to apply to and enroll in colleges that more closely matched their levels of high school achievement.
Higher education institutions also have a significant role to play in current efforts to increase college readiness among historically underserved students."
But what of those high school students from historically disadvantaged groups who are unable to defy the odds and become high-achieving?
Although the recent work on under-matching has garnered a great deal of attention and excitement among higher education stakeholders, a majority of low-income and racial- or ethnic-minority students do not fit into this category. A great deal of research suggests that postsecondary institutions should target students earlier in their high school careers to more effectively ensure equity in their preparation for college.
Students and their families form perceptions of college costs long before the senior year of high school. If students believe that they and their families are unable to afford college, they may be less motivated to take rigorous coursework early in high school and less likely to display key behaviors associated with college enrollment and success.
Indeed, a body of research on the effects of state-run and private programs that provide financial-aid guarantees to students during middle school or the early years of high school demonstrates that these programs promote academic preparation and college enrollment by allaying concerns about college affordability.
While early financial-aid commitments are more costly and complex than sending mailings and providing fee waivers, they represent an active step that colleges and universities can take to ease students’ uncertainty regarding their ability to afford college.
The responsibility of postsecondary institutions to expand college opportunity extends far beyond the steps discussed above. While ensuring equity in college readiness is a critical step in achieving the nation’s higher education goals, colleges and universities also must identify effective ways to support historically underrepresented students during the transition from high school to college and throughout their undergraduate years.
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as Colleges Must Reach Out to Students