College Readiness

Bridging the Gap Between Aspiration and Attainment in College Enrollment

December 19, 2014

In recent years, the call to graduate all students "college and career-ready" has grown louder and louder. And we hear from some that we need to place more emphasis on the "career" side of that than we have in the past. After all, they say, while the American high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, with 80 percent of students getting a diploma (a fact worth celebrating!), just 40 percent of working-aged American adults have a college degree. Do we really need to graduate all students ready for success in college?

An analysis by the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education (CPE) suggests that "yes, we do," revealing that (at least in recent years) the percentage of high school graduates who don't go on to a two- or four-year college is surprisingly small.

The Path Least Taken shows that, for the cohort studied, 79 percent of high school graduates had enrolled in college by age 20. And by age 26, 88 percent of high school graduates had. In other words, just 12 percent of high school graduates did not enroll in college within eight years of graduation. And this study defined "college" as a two- or four-year college, leaving out those who enrolled in a non-academic institution like a trade school. That means the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in some kind of postsecondary training is even higher.

Who Didn't Enroll?

CPE's report investigates the 12 percent of high school graduates who didn't enroll in college, and it reveals some interesting, though not necessarily surprising, trends: They are more likely to be male, two out of three come from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, and about half have parents whose highest level of education is a high school diploma or less. Rural high school graduates are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban peers.

Non-college enrollees took fewer academic courses -- and less rigorous courses -- than their peers. They also earned lower grades and performed more poorly on math and reading standardized assessments. In addition, they spent less time on homework in high school (26 percent reported spending less than one hour on it per week).

Aspiration Versus Attainment

The report also reveals something else: About two-thirds (67 percent) of non-college enrollees began high school believing they would go on to college -- and that desire for college stayed relatively steady throughout high school, with 63 percent still planning to attend at age 18. Even at age 26, 27 percent of non-college enrollees still expected to go to college.

So why didn't they? Finances were the reason most often cited. Other factors include the belief that they already had a good job; that they'd rather work and make money; that they needed to help support their family; and a host of other factors, including that their grades were not good enough, pregnancy/parenting, enrollment in the military, incarceration and more.

What does this mean for K-12 schools? A great deal.

The top-line finding alone -- that just 12 percent of high school graduates do not enroll in college within eight years of graduation -- provides additional evidence that schools need to continue to focus on preparing all students to be ready for a college environment, whether or not they go right away (or ever).

Ways to Assist Students

And going deeper, this report suggests that schools should focus on bridging the gap between aspiration and attainment when it comes to college, particularly for lower-income populations and for those who would be the first in their family to go.

To aid in this effort, the report suggests specific questions that school leaders should ask themselves to gauge how well they assist students with their post high school planning process. These questions address a variety of topics, including:

  • How many students expect to go on to college when they enter high school? (And do these expectations change while in high school?)
  • Do the demographic backgrounds differ between those students who go on to college and those who don't?
  • Do we have enough trained guidance counselors who are knowledgeable in postsecondary options and their entry requirements?
  • Do we provide opportunities for internships and college visits?

Taking an in-depth look at the situation in an individual school community can help target efforts to better ensure those students who want to attend college make it there.

What Works

There are also a number of models that those looking to bridge the gap between aspiration and attainment in college enrollment can look to for guidance.

Consider the Kalamazoo (MI) Promise (and other, similar "promise" programs, such as the El Dorado (AR) Promise), which provides full-tuition scholarships to any of Michigan's public colleges or universities, plus 15 of the state's private liberal-arts colleges, to students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten through high school graduation -- greatly reducing the financial barrier that is the most cited reason that high school graduates don't go on.

Or consider College Options in Shasta, Siskiyou and other northern California counties, which is a partnership between county offices of education, institutions of higher education and others that is designed to increase opportunities for students in these rural communities to pursue postsecondary education.

Activities include overnight bus trips to college campuses, guidance on choosing and applying to colleges, help filling out financial aid forms, SAT and ACT workshops, and more. The area's college-going rate has improved significantly since the program began.

The Ultimate Goal

Of course, increasing college enrollment is not the ultimate goal. The goal is to get students the skills (and credentials) they need to succeed in their chosen field, whether those skills require an associate's, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree -- or a technical certificate or other demonstration of the competencies required for their profession.

And recent initiatives, including First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher campaign, recognize the importance of completion as well as matriculation in postsecondary programs. But as the first step on that road, we have to bridge the gap between college enrollment aspiration and attainment.

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  • Education Equity

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