Income Disparity Affects How Soon Students Enroll in College

Poverty, more than race and ethnicity, has a significant impact on how soon students attend college.

A new report found that poverty, more than race and ethnicity, affects how soon high school graduates go to college.
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The number of high school seniors who begin college within one year of graduating and persist through college varies greatly by family income levels, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

The first-of-its-kind report examined the effects that factors such as income, race and ethnicity, and school setting had on how soon students begin college and whether they graduate. Although there were variations based on schools' concentration of minority students, the largest gap existed between low-income and high-income schools in all settings.

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Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that disparity is a reflection of how poverty can affect a student's ability to learn.

"When you have children coming to school that haven't had breakfast, that are sick, that are coming from families where there's nobody there taking care of them – teaching them to read is a real problem," Domenech said at a panel discussion upon the report's release Tuesday. "Because those kids are not ready to learn."

"The reality is that poverty is a factor that affects achievement, and we cannot continue to ignore it," Domenech added.

Half of seniors who graduated from low-income, rural schools in 2012, for example, began college the first fall after graduating, compared with 65 percent of those from higher income, rural schools.

Overall, about 10 percent more high school seniors started college the fall immediately following graduation if they came from higher income schools. (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)

"Disaggregating data by race and ethnicity continues to show persistent attainment gaps for students and really is a call to action for us to continue not only to look at big pictures but to really hone in on which students need our support and what the data tells us about that," said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network.

Still, even in the best case scenario, Cook said, the outcomes are "below what many schools believe happens to their seniors."

Typically, high schools rely on seniors' exit interviews to gather information about which students transition to college after graduating, and what types of colleges they attend, Cook said. But sometimes, what students say they intend to do in those interviews does not line up with reality, due to a phenomenon known as the "summer melt." Under this scenario, many low-income high school graduates reconsider where, and even whether, to attend college in the months following graduation.

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The report's findings perhaps point to that shift, as a larger share of low-income students often enroll in more affordable two-year colleges, while those from higher incomes are more likely to attend four-year institutions.

Only about 30 percent of 2012 high school seniors from low-income schools enrolled in four-year colleges the first fall after graduation, compared with 38 percent to 48 percent of those from higher income schools. The situation was almost flipped for enrollment at two-year colleges: at least 44 percent of graduating seniors from low-income schools enrolled there, while between 30 percent and 37 percent of higher income students did so.

Additionally, a larger share of students from low-income schools do not enroll in college during the fall immediately following high school graduation, but do so within the first year.

The results of the report highlight a need to better understand poverty and how it affects student success in postsecondary education, according to Dallas Dance, superintendent of the Baltimore County Public Schools.

Dance said educators also need to focus on other critical transition points in students' lives, such as the transition from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school.

High school graduates from higher income schools were more likely to enroll in four-year colleges the first fall after graduation. (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)

"I would always say students mentally drop out in middle school but physically drop out in high school because they think they're physically grown at that particular point," Dance said in the panel discussion. "We start to realize that in many cases, we're not preparing our students well enough to be successful in college, but we're also not giving them the access and awareness to it."