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FALLING FURTHER BEHIND: Two Reports Highlight Growing Gaps in College Preparation and Postsecondary Success for American Indian and Alaska Native Students

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When researchers controlled for differences in academic achievement, high school graduation status, and socioeconomic status, the gap in college enrollment rates between Alaska Native and white students dropped from a 20 percentage-point gap to a 6 percentage-point gap.

American Indian and Alaska Native students are less prepared for college and less likely to enroll in postsecondary education than their white peers, according to separate reports from ACT and the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. The ACT report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: American Indian Students, examines the college readiness of American Indian students nationally. In a separate report, Alaska Students’ Pathways from High School to Postsecondary Education and Employment, REL Northwest analyzes the postsecondary education and work outcomes of high school students in Alaska.

The ACT report finds that American Indian students have the second lowest rate of college readiness among student racial/ethnic groups, as measured by achievement of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science.

“The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are scores on the ACT subject area tests that represent the level of achievement required for students to have a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses,” according to the report.

While 84 percent of American Indian students who took the ACT hope to attain an associate’s degree or higher, only 18 percent of American Indian students achieved the college-ready benchmark on three or more tests compared to 50 percent of white students and 59 percent of Asian students. (See the graph from the report to the right.) American Indian students outperformed only one racial group—African American students. Only 12 percent of African American students who took the ACT in 2015 achieved three or more college-ready benchmarks.

Percent of 2011-2015 ACT Tested High School Graduates Meeting Three or More Benchmakrs by Race or Ethnicity

Moreover, the percentage of American Indian students achieving three or more college-ready benchmarks declined 3 points since reaching a five-year high of 21 percent in 2011, according to the ACT report. Similarly, the percentage of students reaching the college-ready benchmark on the individual subject tests declined. In 2015, 39 percent of American Indian students met the college-ready benchmark in English and 26 percent met the benchmark in reading, down from 47 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in 2011. Math performance for American Indian students also declined from 25 percent in 2011 to 20 percent in 2015. The percentage of American Indian students meeting the science college-ready benchmark increased slightly from 15 percent in 2011 to 18 percent in 2015.

“Educational planning, monitoring, and interventions must be better aligned to help students realize their aspirations,” write Marten Roorda, chief executive officer of ACT, and Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, at the beginning of the ACT report. “[C]ollege access can be strengthened by increasing the programmatic capacity of local agencies to design, implement, and operate more effective academic and evaluation practices that support Native student learning.”

The ACT report highlights the disconnect between the postsecondary aspirations of American Indian students and their preparation for success after high school. The REL Northwest study, meanwhile, examines actual postsecondary outcomes for Alaska Native students in their home state, identifying the characteristics and conditions associated with differences in their education and employment success.

REL Northwest finds that disparities in academic achievement, high school graduation status, and economic disadvantage contribute to disparities in college enrollment rates between white and Alaska Native students. The researchers examined the postsecondary outcomes for approximately 40,000 Alaska students who left high school between School Year (SY) 2004–05 and SY 2007–08.

Among the cohorts studied, only 21 percent of Alaska Native students enrolled in either a two- or four-year college immediately after high school versus 41 percent of white students. But when researchers compared Alaska Native students and white students with similar characteristics and circumstances, they found that both groups of students had similar probabilities of enrolling in college immediately after high school. In fact, when the researchers controlled for differences in academic achievement, high school graduation status, and socioeconomic status, the gap in college enrollment rates between Alaska Native and white students dropped from a 20 percentage-point gap to a 6 percentage-point gap, according to the REL Northwest study.

“This means that Alaska Native and white students with similar characteristics who come from similar circumstances tend to make similar choices,” the report explains. “It also suggests that an unequal distribution of various experiences within racial/ethnic groups—for example, living in poverty or graduating from high school—can in part account for why a larger share of white students than Alaska Native students chose to enroll immediately in college.”

Alaska Native students in the study had a lower high school graduation rate than white students (53 percent versus 72 percent) and a higher rate of qualification for free or reduced-price lunch (71 percent for Alaska Native students compared to 27 percent for white students).

“This finding suggests that if we were able to resolve some economic and educational disparities, we would expect to see the numbers of students pursuing higher education rise, especially for currently underrepresented groups,” Havala Hanson, coauthor of the REL Northwest study, says in a statement.

This gap in college enrollment could impact students’ employment and economic success as well. The REL Northwest study finds that students who “attained higher levels of education tended to have higher employment rates and earn higher wages,” the report says. Among all Alaska students, those who earned a four-year college degree had the highest employment rate of 79 percent, while students who left high school without a diploma had the lowest employment rate at 62 percent. Similarly, high school graduates earned $5,800 more per year than high school dropouts, while individuals with a two-year degree earned $13,800 more and individuals with a four-year degree earned $9,300 more than high school dropouts.

On average, white students earned $5,100 more per year than Alaska Native students, the report says. But “[w]hen comparing Alaska Native and White students who achieved the same level of education, the difference in wages decreased in most cases,” the report says. In fact, among students who earned a four-year college degree, Alaska Native students earned $100 more per year than white students. The exception was among students who earned a two-year college degree, where the wage gap was the widest. Alaska Native students with a two-year college degree earned $14,200 less per year than similarly educated white students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act includes several provisions that target the educational needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. To learn more, view the Alliance’s fact sheet or watch a special edition of the Alliance’s five-minute Federal Flash at https://all4ed.org/essa/#AmericanIndian.

Download ACT’s report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: American Indian Students, at http://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/CCCR-2015-AmericanIndian.pdf.

REL Northwest’s report, Alaska Students’ Pathways from High School to Postsecondary Education and Employment, is available at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/projects/project.asp?projectID=336.

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