Curriculum Opinion

The College Gap

By Nancy Hoffman & Joel Vargas — October 08, 2007 6 min read
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A life-changing fall ritual is under way for many high school seniors. It’s college-application time. Hopes are high. Get a college degree, and a middle-class lifestyle is in your future. This is the way to pursue the American dream.

In higher-income families, students began making campus visits a year ago. Their rooms are piled high with catalogs, their essays honed, their SAT tutors hired. It is a given that they will go to college. The fall ritual ends with that joyous shout—“Mom and Dad, I got in!”—and the fat envelope with the acceptance letter popularized in the media.



Then there is the other half: young people with the aspirations, dreams, and motivation to get a college degree, but for whom barriers outweigh opportunities. They may graduate from high school ready for college, but because they are poor, the odds are low that they will apply, show up in the fall with their bills paid, and then persist through the critical freshman year. Similar abilities; different stories.

In the second group, too many young people attend our nation’s urban “dropout factories,” where the chances of earning a high school diploma are less than 50-50. Nearly half of African-American students and 40 percent of Latino students attend such high schools. And even for those low-income but high-achieving students who earn high school diplomas, moving on to postsecondary education is still a significant challenge. According to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, which advises Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, almost one in four high school graduates from poor families who score in the top testing quartile will not attend college—the same proportion as their lowest-scoring affluent peers.

Today, postsecondary education is the best insurance of economic health for young people, their communities, the 50 states, and the nation. How then do we get more low-income young people on the path to postsecondary credentials? Three resources are essential: a rigorous academic program that moves without break from high school into nonremedial college work; financing for higher education promised at least by 9th grade; and a web of support—school-based, familial, and community—through high school and into postsecondary education.

Some schools, families, and communities supply all three resources, but many cannot, and the major responsibility falls to the 50 states to equalize opportunity and prepare all citizens to meet the needs of today’s economy. Indeed, state policymakers are coming to realize that they must attend to postsecondary attainment rates just as they do to success in the first 12 years of education.

In our book, Minding the Gap, we argue that the best way to ensure that young people have strong academics, financing, and support is for states to create an integrated secondary-postsecondary system, one in which a post-high-school credential is the default end point and the transition between sectors is smoothed out to the greatest extent possible.

In other words, because low-income students are disappearing in the transition between high school and postsecondary education, we must restructure the transition and build the complex of structures needed for a seamless system.

The seeds of an integrated system have been in the works for decades, but no state has put all the pieces together. Many states have K-16 governance structures and are implementing K-16 data systems. A majority are aligning high school graduation standards with the standards required to advance into nonremedial, college-level work. Some states use 10th or 11th grade assessments to provide students with feedback about their readiness for college. And some districts have programs to recover high school dropouts and students who fall behind in earning credits, by partnering with community colleges.

In an integrated system, seamless accountability, finance, and governance enable states to hold schools accountable.

The steps toward providing financial resources are smaller. Some states promise tuition-free college for low-income students who complete core academic requirements. Others provide the chance to earn free college credits in high school through dual enrollment. The third category—the web of school-based, familial, and community support—is less well developed, but schools, communities, and faith-based organizations are promoting postsecondary education as an attainable future for their young people. They offer tutoring, counseling, and encouragement.

For our book, we asked several dozen experts, each working on components of an integrated system, to address the question of what it would take to create a 9-through-14 system that combines the best of what is now in place to achieve fairer and better results. While in some ways this was a thought experiment, their answers are not theoretical. All the authors are either implementing programs or policies that align and integrate grades 9-14, or they carry out research about policies and programs already in place. The result, then, is a look into the future of how the pieces already in place could be combined and connected, what new structures are needed, and how to design and implement them.

If you read the tea leaves, trends not fully on the radar screen come into view. For example, a surprising number of young people—in some states, 20 percent—already earn college credit in high school. Or consider Oregon’s work to create a prekindergarten-through-20 budgeting system. And several states provide free college degrees to deserving young people: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah, to name a few. The potential for integrating high school and college is well illustrated by the rapid growth of early-college high schools—150 schools in 24 states, all started since 2002.

We have to do it all—and together—because, in the end, the purpose of an integrated system is to attain greater equity.

There are still gaps to fill. Nonetheless, we can envision the characteristics of the integrated system the country needs and can achieve: Secondary and postsecondary systems share responsibility for student academic success in the transition across the two sectors—no more blaming high schools without postsecondary rolling up its sleeves. Multiple pathways to postsecondary credentials provide a well-defined, limited number of choices for students, including high-quality career and technical certificates. And most students—not a select few—have opportunities to earn college credit in high school.

In an integrated system, seamless accountability, finance, and governance enable states to hold schools and postsecondary institutions accountable under one set of rules for achieving goals. A single state finance system distributes funds equitably, from kindergarten through college. Most important, collaborative or joint governance structures plan, set goals, and monitor results across both sectors.

We have to do it all—and together—because, in the end, the purpose of an integrated system is to attain greater equity. “Dropout factories” are a shame to the nation. They undermine the goals of the long struggle for civil rights that began half a century ago. Every young person has the right to a rigorous, relevant high school education, and at least a public pledge of financial and academic support for postsecondary education, if not the expectation that a college degree is likely to come along with the shout, “Mom and Dad, I got in!”


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