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RECLAIMING THE AMERICAN DREAM: Report Finds Rigorous High School Course Work and a “College-Going Culture” Vital to Success in College

“Education is our most critical tool for increasing economic opportunity and social mobility,” said Susan Colby

Academic preparation is by far the most effective way to increase the odds that a student will graduate from high school prepared for college and eventually receive his or her college degree, according to a Reclaiming the American Dream, a new report from the Bridgespan Group that was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Education is our most critical tool for increasing economic opportunity and social mobility,” said Susan Colby, Bridgespan Group partner and co-author of the report. “Through this paper we sought to identify the barriers that keep students from earning degrees, and to make recommendations that will help the appropriate actors set priorities and make choices on how to best prepare students for college. All students deserve the opportunity not just to finish high school, but to achieve their aspirations.”

The report finds that students who graduate from high school having met “even a very lenient definition of academic preparedness” have an 85 percent chance of going to college and a 50 percent chance of earning a degree.1 On the other hand, students who fail to meet this standard have only a 14 percent chance of finishing college. According to the report, only 46 percent of high school graduates meet even minimal levels of academic preparation. In particular, it cites research that found the “tipping point of momentum towards a bachelor’s degree [is] now firmly above Algebra 2.”

In addition to academic preparation, the report identified several other factors that increase a student’s chance of earning a college degree. For example, students who expect that a college degree will be essential to pursue their desired careers are six times more likely to earn a degree. In addition, students who are well informed about the course requirements they need to enroll in college are more likely to be successful. As the report points out, many low-income students have the expectation that they will go to college but lack access to rigorous courses and lag far behind in taking advanced math and science. Having a cohort of friends who expect to go to college is also important—even more so than parental encouragement. The report adds that supports that address the issue of college affordability are “important across the board.”

Among its recommendations, the report supports a challenging high school curriculum and high school exit requirements that are aligned with college entrance requirements. To help students meet these higher standards, schools need to provide additional supports such as tutoring for students and professional development for teachers to “create the conditions for rigorous programs to be successful.”

Reclaiming the American Dream calls for “college-going cultures” in all high schools where students have a clear understanding of the relevance of college and are surrounded by high expectations for success. It also encourages students to challenge misperceptions about college affordability. “Studies show that many students falsely assume that they cannot afford college,” it reads. “Half to three-quarters of low-income students do not apply for aid or loans. Changing this perception and connecting students with financial help greatly improves their chances of entering college and earning a degree.”

The complete report is available at

1) According to the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), which the Bridgespan Group analyzed in writing the report, students are defined as “minimally qualified” for college if they meet one of five criteria: 1) Rank at or above the 54th percentile in their class; 2) Have a GPA of 2.7 or higher in academic courses; 3) Have a combined SAT score of 820 or above (approximately the 35th percentile); 4) Have an ACT composite score of 19 or higher (approximately the 40th percentile); or 5) Score at the 56th percentile or above on the 1992 NELS math and reading composite aptitude test.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.