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WHO’S GOING TO COLLEGE?: Annual Report Compares College Transition Rates for High School Graduates

Students from low-income high schools—those where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—enroll in college at lower rates than students from high-income high schools, regardless of their geographic location or the number of students of color their schools serve, according to High School Benchmarks 2015, an annual report from the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™ (NSCRC) about high school graduates’ college access, persistence, and completion outcomes. The report compares the college transition rates of students from public noncharter high schools based on various school-level demographic and geographic characteristics, including the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, the percentage of students of color served, and school location (rural, suburban, or urban).

In the Class of 2014, between 44 percent and 58 percent of students from low-income high schools (across the various demographic and geographic characteristics analyzed in the report) enrolled in college during the first semester following high school graduation. By contrast, between 64 percent and 74 percent of students from high-income high schools enrolled in college immediately after high school graduation, as the graph from the report shows below. Lower enrollment patterns continued for students from low-income high schools even when researchers included data for students who enrolled in college the spring or summer term following their high school graduations. Furthermore, students from low-income high schools showed lower enrollment trends across multiple types of higher education institutions, enrolling in four-year universities, out-of-state institutions, and private colleges and universities at lower rates than students from high-income high schools, the report notes.

College Enrollment Rates in First Fall After High School Graduation, Class of 2014

College Enrollment Graphs

Students from low-income high schools also had lower college persistence rates than students from high-income high schools, the report says. Between 73 percent and 82 percent of students from low-income high schools stayed in college after the first year. Persistence rates for students from high-income high schools, meanwhile, ranged from 84 percent to 89 percent.

College completion rates were lower for students from low-income high schools as well; although, students from high-income high schools that served at least 40 percent students of color also had lower completion rates. The six-year college completion rates ranged from 22 percent to 33 percent for graduates from these high schools. Graduates from low-income urban high schools that served at least 40 percent students of color had the lowest completion rate at 22 percent. By comparison, 50 percent of graduates from high-income suburban high schools with few students of color earned a college degree within six years of completing high school—the highest college completion rate of all groups analyzed in the report.

The NSCRC report also highlights variations in the types of college degrees graduates from different high schools earned, exposing wide gaps in the rates at which students earned degrees in various science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The six-year completion rates for STEM degrees were relatively low among all high school graduates from the Class of 2008, the report notes. But graduates from low-income urban high schools that served high numbers of students of color had the lowest rate—only 6 percent of graduates from these schools completed a STEM-related degree. “The highest percentages of high school graduates who had a degree in a STEM field were from higher income, low minority urban and suburban schools (17 and 16 percent, respectively),” the report says.

Additionally, graduates from low-income high schools and schools that served higher percentages of students of color were more likely to pursue STEM college degrees in psychology and social sciences. By contrast, students from high-income high schools with few students of color pursued more degrees in engineering, mathematics, and the biological and physical sciences, the report notes.

High School Benchmarks 2015 is available at https://nscresearchcenter.org/hsbenchmarks2015/.

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